Farmers in 14 south central Kentucky counties are being told contracts coming out of a conservation program aimed to protect the Green River watershed will not be renewed.

County Farm Service Agency offices recently received letters notifying them that the Green River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) has concluded. The first group of contracts with farmers covering more than 8,200 acres will end Sept. 30. All contracts will be honored but once their agreement period ends, there will not be an opportunity to renew them.

The Kentucky CREP program began in 2001 with a goal of improving water quality and enhancing wildlife habitat within the Green River watershed. Adair, Barren, Edmonson, Green, Hart, Metcalfe, Russell and Taylor counties were part of the original program. In 2006, the program was amended to expand the CREP region around 30 river miles to include watersheds downstream, and land in Allen, Butler, Edmonson, Grayson, Logan and Simpson counties was added.

The program has been near its maximum enrollment since 2009, according to a document sent to county FSA offices and signed by state FSA acting director Robert W. Finch. Close to 97,500 acres are currently enrolled and new contracts have not been offered since 2012.

CREP is part of the overall Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) but offers additional incentives to protect specifically identified areas, such as the Green River system. Set-aside requirements for CREP are more flexible than CRP. For example, land within 1,000 ft. of a karst area sinkhole could qualify for CREP while CRP limits land to an average of 100 ft. Farmers are paid based on average soil rental rates and specific conservation practices, with annual payments averaging from $200 to $400 an acre. Producers signed up for no less than 10 years and up to 15 years.

While contracts covering 8,287 acres will expire this year, another 20,000 acres will come out of the program in 2018. Around 5,500 acres will come out in 2019, according to records from Kentucky FSA.

NEGOTIATIONS END WITH NO AGREEMENT

While USDA is officially reporting that the program ended after acreage goals were met, a change in the requirements on the state level may have impacted that decision. The program is a partnership between FSA, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Kentucky Division of Conservation, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources, and the Nature Conservancy. In April USDA asked the state to provide 10 percent of the cash paid to landowners and 10 percent of the in-kind costs, according to John Mura, director of communications for Charles G. Snavely, secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. The Division of Conservation is part of the Environment Cabinet and operates the program. During the last fiscal year, $18.3 million was paid out to landowners, Mura said. Because rates are partially determined by rental rates, payments made to landowners would probably increase substantially under new contracts.

Finch, the acting FSA director, said partners in the program have been working for the past year because the agreement would have to be modified to move forward. That didn’t happen.

“We met our acreage goals a number of years ago. It was coming to the point that this Sept. 30 would be the first time that acres would expire. We were working with state partners trying to get an agreement of where we go from there,” he said. “If we can’t agree on a smaller scale program or can’t agree upon how we support the same program, then USDA didn’t have any choice but to say it’s been concluded, which they’ve done in other states. We are not the first.”

One factor in the decision comes from an acreage cap for CRP programs that is part of the farm bill.

“We’ve been hitting up against that nationally very hard,” Finch said. “We are currently not taking in any new enrollments for continuous or for general signup, and haven’t had any general signup for a number of years because we are so close to that cap.” Some practices in the CREP program also fall within CRP and producers may be eligible to keep a small amount of acreage in that program, Finch noted. Local conservation staff are working with producers to help them understand their options, he added.

SECRETARY REQUESTS DELAY

On June 26, Secretary Snavely requested that USDA allow the program to continue for one year. The Cabinet did not receive any response to the request, Mura said. In addition, Snavely reached out to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell on Aug. 4 to ask for assistance in keeping the program for an additional year. As of Monday, there has been no reprieve approved and FSA offices are instructed to notify producers that contracts will not be renewed.

“We are making every effort to continue a dialogue with our federal partners on this,” Mura said.

DEMAND FOR FARMLAND

While Green River CREP has successfully put acreage into wildlife habitat and conservation practices, the program has been controversial at a time when farmland is in great demand. Although some of the land is now covered in timber, the end of the program could see some acres going back into production.

“You will have some people who will go in there and rip it up,” Finch said. “I don’t think it’s all going to go back into production agriculture.”

Finch said a lot of the acreage is no longer suitable to go back into farmland, at least not quickly.

“A lot of it we planted trees on, so it can’t go back into next year’s crop,” he said. “Hopefully everyone can have discussions…Farmers that have land that is getting reading to expire need to be talking to their local conservation people about options and how they can keep that in conservation and still get some income from it.”

By Sharon Burton snburton@duo-county.coM

GREEN RIVER CREP 2012 ANNUAL REPORT