WASHINGTON, July 5, 2017 - Senators from the drought-stricken states of South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana pressed for more relief for livestock operators at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on conservation programs last week.

 Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said of ranchers in her state, “If they’re making it, (they) are making it day to day right now, and they don’t know how they’re going to carry this over into the winter. I would urge you to do everything, go to the limit in allowing ranchers to have access to CRP” lands, she said, referring to the Conservation Reserve Program.

“I don’t know how things can get worse for our ranchers out there,” she added, addressing witness Misty Jones, the Farm Service Agency’s director of conservation and environmental programs.

She and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue should allow emergency haying in addition to the emergency grazing expansion that was announced June 29, the same day as the hearing.

“We have been begging you guys for a decision to allow haying,” Heitkamp said.

Jones noted that on June 23, Perdue allowed emergency grazing of CRP acres in counties classified as suffering from severe drought (D2, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor), but that he also was expanding flexibility for producers beyond the worst-hit areas.

Perdue’s June 29 decision allows emergency grazing of CRP acreage in counties whose borders lie within 150 miles of a county approved for emergency grazing of CRP. In addition, CRP contract holders who are allowed to hay their CRP acreage under their mid-management contract plan can donate their hay to livestock producers without a penalty.

“CRP contract holders still have the ability to sell their hay with a 25-percent reduction in their annual rental payment as they’ve been fully authorized to do in the past,” USDA said.

Jones said Perdue is monitoring conditions and would make an announcement soon on emergency haying, which would allow CRP contract holders whose contracts don’t allow mid-management haying to mechanically harvest it.

“The secretary’s committed to continue monitoring,” Jones told Thune. “We’ll just continue to work with you and understand the conditions better in your states.”

Thune noted that only 9 percent of his state was not suffering from some level of drought, and 56 percent was suffering from severe drought. (See U.S. Drought Monitor maps here.) In North Dakota, nearly half the state is experiencing severe or extreme drought, while in Montana that figure is about 6 percent.

Another issue brought up at the hearing was the increasing popularity of conservation programs.

NRCS Deputy Chief Jimmy Bramblett said the agency’s conservation programs “are greatly oversubscribed.” The Conservation Stewardship Program will receive about 19,000 applications this year, a 30 percent increase, but will only be able to approve 6,500.

NRCS also cannot meet demand for enrollment in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Bramblett said, noting that in some states only one farmer is approved for six who have applied. And, he said, NRCS can only approve about 15 percent of the easement applications it receives, an approval rate that will be cut in half when funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program drops from $500 million in the current fiscal year to $250 million next year.  The Regional Conservation Partnership Program also has a “three-to-one backlog,” he said.

Bramblett said the popularity of the programs reflects the “value everyone sees not only in farm conservation but the profitability we see in farm conservation.” Lower commodity prices have helped push farmers into conservation programs in some cases, he said.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she was concerned about stories she’s hearing from younger Iowa farmers about highly productive farm acreage being enrolled in CRP. Ernst quoted from a letter she received from one fifth-generation farmer who said one of his sons “lost 80 acres of land to a pollinator program where he had recently installed a center pivot irrigation system.”

“Never in my 30-plus years of farming did I feel that the government was going to be a threat to me and my young son’s farm operation,” she said, quoting the letter. “I have heard similar stories from across Iowa about CRP outbidding cash rents on productive farm ground and it greatly concerns me.”

“We need to focus on those marginal lands rather than highly productive acres,” Ernst said.