Two federal farm programs liked by (almost) all

John Oncken

Farmers of every sort are wondering how President-elect Donald Trump will face the omnipresent and always controversial farming and agriculture issues such as immigration, GMO crops, mega farm business mergers and a host of environmental challenges on the table that will need to be dealt with sooner or later.

The pollinator habit is a valuable CRP option, as this butterfly will attest to.

The new president’s challenge: whatever rules and regulations evolve, they will not create joy among all farmers, farmer organizations or the many  consumer and environmental groups with widely varying interests,

Ag committees for 200 years

And so it has been since Congress established House and Senate Agriculture committees in 1820 and 1825; added the Department of Agriculture to cabinet status in 1889; and passed the first farm bill, known as the Agriculture Adjustment Act, in 1933 as a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

The hundreds, even thousands of regulations dealt with under the farm bill, or through a myriad of political or regulatory agencies, range from food stamps to surplus dairy products to selecting the  state committees who oversee many USDA programs.


On occasion I have encountered farmers or other landowners who are participating in a federal program called the The Conservation Reserve Program, a land conservation program administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency.  I’ve heard and read only good things about the program, not only from participants but from environmental and wildlife groups.

Farmers enrolled in the program (10 to 15 years in length) agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality in exchange for a yearly rental payment.  The long-term goal of the program is to reestablish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.

Interseeded cover crop into standing corn is a CSA option.

Many choices

Farmers and landowners can choose from a long list of initiatives to achieve many farming and conservation goals in addition to the soil conservation, water quality protection or wildlife habitat basics.

An example is the Honey Bee Initiative Benefit that involves high quality forage that improves honey bee nutrition by establishing plants that provide pollen and nectar throughout the summer months. USDA has developed cost-effective seed mixes to provide better nutrition for honey bees. Better nutrition helps hives during the winter by increasing their honey stores.

The Honey Bee Initiative offers landowners and farmers incentives to reduce the out-of-pocket management expense. Additionally, by establishing good honey bee covers, landowners increase the opportunity to enter agreements with commercial beekeepers to locate hives on their land. Cost-share benefits for the Honey Bee Initiative range up to $100 per acre for the life of the contract for a 10-year contract. (This is in addition to the basic benefit under CRP.)

CRP was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 and is sort of a grandchild to the not-so-fondly remembered Soil Bank program that ran from 1956-1985.  Wisconsin has 238,305 acres in the CRP program with  $27.9 million in annual rental payments. At one time, there were over a half million acres in the program, but many contracts were not renewed during the high grain price era of a few years ago.

Enrollments are again on the rise as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced earlier this year that more than 1.3 million acres were newly enrolled in CRP in fiscal year 2016 using the continuous enrollment authority, double the pace of the previous year, and that it  “provides nearly $2 billion annually to land owners.”

The 2014 Farm bill set the national cap at 24 million acres, and as enrollment approaches that statutory cap, CRP enrollment will be watched and determined by FSA.

Brenda Zachman, geographic Information specialist at FSA, uses a GPS unit.


Another popular program available to farmers is the Conservation Stewardship Program that builds on existing conservation efforts while strengthening the farming operation. It can be used to improve grazing conditions, increase crop yields or develop wildlife habitat.

CSP was added as a financial assistance program for working land under the 2002 Farm Bill by Congress. It is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which until 1994 was known as the Soil Conservation Service and was created under the U.S. Department of Agriculture by Congress in 1935.

The CSP makes payments to producers to implement or maintain practices that impact natural resource programs and provides a stewardship-based alternative to crop subsidies as a means of supporting farm income.”

Brendon Soldner, an ag specialist at the state USDA/FSA office in Madison, works closely with the Conservtion Reserve Program.

For working farms

CSP is for working lands and is the largest conservation program in the U.S. with 70 million acres of productive agricultural and forest land enrolled. It can help  build the business while implementing conservation practices that help ensure the sustainability of the entire operation. Some examples include  incorporating native grasses and/or legumes; grazing management to improve wildlife habitat; and patch-burning to enhance wildlife habitat. Enrollment in CSP is for five years, and you must be the producer to enroll.

A wildlife pond is an option under CRP.

In simple terms, CRP is administered by the Farm Service Agency and involves idling the land from crop production. The CSP is under the direction of the National Resources Conservation Service and is used on active farm land. Each assistance is aimed at helping farmers with complicated programs.

Potential users of these programs should visit their local USDA County office to set up a program for their individual farm

Grassed waterways are broad, shallow channels designed to move surface water across farmland without causing soil erosion as a Conservation Stewardship Program.

A farm

I’ve often heard discussions about the question: What is a farm?

According to the USDA, “a farm is defined as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold, during the year."

Another debated question is: What is a family farm?

Again the USDA defines a family farm as “any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator including through blood, marriage or adoption ... and 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are family-owned operations."

I’ve tried, in the words above, to simplify two relatively basic USDA  farm programs that can be of financial value to farm land owners, and even they are complicated. Try to imagine the rules and regulations that farmers must abide by, from labor management to animal care to spreading manure to dozens of government programs of one kind or another. A farm of almost any size needs a “paperwork” person to keep track of things.

And no farmer I know of intentionally pollutes, erodes, spoils or otherwise wastes natural resources. That’s just not what farming is about.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications.  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at