That who had allergies were stuck with

That very first AG
project.  Something I will always
remember. What was mine? It was a Native Range Display board that my
Agricultural Education teacher had us do for our 8th grade class
project at the county fair. For my Native Range Display, my grandpa and I went to some of his pastures to retrieve
different native grasses. Until this time, I had not realized there were so many different
species growing naturally in Oklahoma instead of
being planted.

Constructing this
grass board is quite the process. It is amazing how much grass it takes to make
a one-inch bundle, and also the mess it makes. During the two week period that
my classmates and I worked on this project in the classroom, the shop was strewn with grass cuttings, seeds, and pieces of leftover stems
and leaves everywhere. The students who had
allergies were stuck with red eyes and runny noses for days. As with
everything, the first year was a learning process, and unfortunately, I didn’t do very well. My
grass board placed fifth at the county fair and did not qualify for the Tulsa
State Fair.  However, the following year I did the project
again and, much to my surprise, the grass board I entered at the county fair and the
Tulsa State Fair was awarded grand champion. I was pretty proud of myself when
I realized that at the Tulsa State Fair my
competition included  at least thirty other boards.

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This project
taught me that there are thirty-one varieties of native grasses. The most
common native grasses, referred to as “The Big Four” include big bluestem,
little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass. As I visited with my grandpa, he told me the grasses we picked were from CRP land.
“What is CRP?” I asked.   He informed me this would be a good project
for me to research on my own. Honestly, I think
he just didn’t want to explain the whole process, but I followed his advice and
began researching.

In 1963, due to a
shortage of wheat caused by drought, the Soviet Union began importing grains,
mainly wheat, from the United States. This caused wheat prices to spike in the
US. Farmers started tilling up more and more land to try and take advantage of
the increasing prices. By doing this, farm
production was excessively abundant, and the increased supply caused lower crop prices. Now the government was dealing
with the oversupply of crops. They did not want to experience another Dust Bowl
due to the tillage of erodible soil. In 1985 the Farm Bill, which officially
established the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP),
was passed. The program was designed to give agriculturalists the opportunity
to protect land from soil erosion, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife
habitats by planting cover crops.         

There are several
different CRP programs available for landowners or farmers. CRP-1 is the contract
agreement which includes practices like planting hardwood and softwood trees or
even wetland restoration. The most popular program in Garfield County is native
grass, legume and forbs establishment, along with pollinator habitats and wildlife
habitats. A landowner could also create grassed waterways, plant windbreaks and
grass filters or even plant vegetation to help reduce salinity. The CRP-1
contract period lasts 10-15 years. In a contract,
the owner can share 50% of the start-up cost of a program with the Farm Service

After establishing
a CRP practice, the owner can be paid in several different ways, either by an annual rental
payment, the Signing Incentive Payment, or the Performance Incentive Payment.
The annual rental payment is based on rental rate of the productivity of the
soil within each county and the average dryland cash rent from data provided by
the National Agricultural Statistical Service. The Signing Incentive Payment,
or SIP, is a one-time payment of $10 per enrolled acre for each year of
contract for those who enroll in any practices like filter strips or duck
habitats. The Performance Incentive Payment, or PIP, is also a one-time payment
for those who enroll land that is devoted to all continuous sign-up practices,
with the exception of some lands. A PIP payment is equal to 40% of the
installation cost of the practices. The most a person could receive from a CRP
contract is $50,000 per year.

Farm Service Agency created a specific eligibility criterion. According to the CRP
guidelines, a producer must have owned or operated the land for at least twelve
months prior to the close of the CRP sign-up period, unless there have been
certain ownership changes like foreclosure or death of the previous owner. The
land must have environmental risk, been recently farmed or grazed, and must have
competitive enrollment. It must be cropland that has been planted to an
agricultural commodity, like wheat, sorghum, or corn for four of the previous
six crop years and have no easements or other legally binding restrictions. To
go along with the guideline requirements the cropland must also meet one of the
following criteria: Have a weight average erosion index of eight or higher, be
enrolled in a CRP contract that expires September 30th or be located
in a national or state CRP priority area. The FSA also created the Environment
Benefit Index, also known as the EBI, to determine the environmental benefits
for the land offered. They evaluate how erodible the land is, and if it contributes
to improving wildlife habitat or water and air quality.

Today, with the drop in crop prices,
people are becoming more interested in enrolling acres into CRP. The CRP
program has a 24 million-acre cap, and, as of
October, there were 23.5 million acres enrolled.
As of last spring, the Oklahoma Panhandle alone had over 300,000 acres enrolled
in the Conservation Reserve Program. With the growing demand, there is not
enough room to enroll. With this situation,
policymakers are facing major challenges. Many agricultural groups have
interest in expanding the program, but with the rental rates being an average
of $75 per acre nationally, many wonder how they
would get the funding from an already struggling economy. An alternative choice
is to encourage less general enrollment and to create more room for the higher
priority and more susceptible land. In Garfield County,
at the September sign-up date, forty-two landowners applied to the CRP program
and of those only two were accepted. USDA has also recently announced an early
expiration option for land owners to withdraw some of the least environmentally-sensitive
land in CRP as a part of an initiative to encourage farmland transition to the
next generation of agricultural producers. With the
current Farm Bill ending in 2018, there are not yet any expected changes
impacting the FSA programs. However, landowners are encouraged to keep applying
to enter highly susceptible land into the CRP programs so conservation efforts
can continue to be successful in needed areas.

Since 1986, the Conservation Reserve Program has reduced
more than 8 billion tons of soil erosion, which is the equivalent of
approximately 267 million large dump truck loads of soil. The importance of programs
like the CRP need to be understood and pursued by landowners and farmers alike
to help practice sustainable farming and environmental care. Franklin Delano
Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”. Farming
families, such as mine, realize the importance of our topsoil. Fertile topsoil
produces the nation’s food, fiber and fuel. It is left to today’s generation to
be responsible stewards of the land and to continue to protect, that precious
resource that provides life and a future.