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Thune: CRP acres slashed in proposed farm bill

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., answers questions from the Tyndall Rotary Club after having eating lunch with the group Monday at the Corral Cafe in Tyndall. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 2
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., answers questions from the Tyndall Rotary Club after eating lunch with the group Monday at the Corral Cafe in Tyndall. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 2

TYNDALL — The Conservation Reserve Program will suffer a major hit in the new farm bill, Sen. John Thune said.

Thune, R-S.D., said CRP will likely be capped at 24 million acres enrolled nationwide at any one time, which is down from 32 million acres in the 2008 farm bill.

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“That would be the lowest we’ve seen,” Thune said during a meeting of the Tyndall Rotary Club Monday at the town’s Corral Cafe. “Since I’ve been in Congress, it’s always been up in the mid-30 million range.”

CRP was established 29 years ago in the 1985 farm bill. The program pays landowners to set aside marginal ground and keep it out of agricultural production to help reduce soil erosion, improve soil and air quality and develop wildlife habitat.

Thune said he’s hopeful the farm bill will be wrapped up in the next couple of weeks. Farm policy has been operating on temporary extensions of the 2008 bill for months.

One of the major topics in South Dakota recently has been the decline in pheasant numbers and habitat for the birds and other wildlife. Thune attended Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s Pheasant Habitat Summit last month in Huron and spoke about the decline in CRP acreage, which directly impacts habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.

At the summit, state officials discussed ideas with farmers and conservationists to continue South Dakota’s tradition of agri-business and also keep pheasant populations thriving. Thune told people who attended the summit that he wanted to start working on a way to customize the CRP program, even though he was forecasting a drop in acreage.

Monday, Thune said he’s been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “maximize the opportunity for wildlife production.”

“Right now, the CRP payments that are being made don’t keep up with rental rates,” he said. “Farmers right now, they’re following economic signals and they’re cropping it. It’s because in a lot of ways, keeping it in CRP isn’t an economically competitive option.

“But if we can figure out a way to customize it, for instance figure out a way instead of putting in a whole section or half-section in, maybe put a quarter section or an 80 (acre-section) in. But it would be for the cover that creates the best habitat for wildlife.”

Thune said there are some good things in the conservation title of the proposed farm bill.

The senator helped get a sod-saver provision in a preliminary version of the last farm bill. That provision was intended to help protect native prairie and virgin land across the country from being converted to cropland, but after it received support in both the House and Senate versions of the 2008 farm bill, it was dismantled in a conference committee and became a voluntary project that never got off the ground.

“We are getting some provisions in the conservation title of the farm bill that hopefully will encourage farmers not to break up virgin ground,” Thune said. “That’s the sod-saver provision we got in there, and we hope it gets applied nationwide.

“There’s also a conservation compliance requirement, so if you aren’t following conservation laws, if you don’t comply with conservation policies, you can’t participate in crop insurance in the farm bill.”

Thune said he hopes to get a farm bill passed that protects the “safety net that’s so important for farmers and ranchers” and that’s also defensible to taxpayers, defensible to world trading partners, and is something that encourages farmers to produce something for the market and not the federal government.

“We want people to follow market signals and not make their decisions based upon what federal rules, regulations and laws are,” Thune said. “Those are my priorities with the farm bill.”