The Chesapeake Bay Forestry Workgroup offers these recommendations to the US Department of Agriculture to strengthen the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs (CREPs) –specifically for Riparian Forest Buffers –which will be critical to reaching their mandated water quality goals.
- Need for adequate cost-share: Adequate cost share for stream fencing, crossings and alternative water development is critical for many livestock producers and farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed who would like to restore riparian forest buffers. They need to receive 50% of the actual cost of these components, not 50% of an outdated or unduly low estimate of what these components cost. For example, conditions, and therefore prices, for fencing and alternative water sources vary significantly throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We suggest determining fair market value based on polling vendors, conservation districts, and contractors in the county each year. A process should be created that involves partners to ensure fairness and to lessen the burden on USDA. For instance, if a producer thinks costs are too low, they could counter with costs submitted by approved contractors.
- Improved Implementation of Buffer Management: Paying for 100% of the Riparian Buffer management payments for the length of the contract is an important new provision in this Farm Bill. This provision directly responds to the problem that was widely identified across the Chesapeake Bay watershed of insufficient or otherwise inadequate management leading to poor buffer survival and success. Management should include the full suite of needed practices including invasive species control and tree shelter removal, in addition to mowing and tree shelter straightening/stake replacement actions. Because management actions, time frames, and costs can vary widely within a state, we strongly suggest that FSA and the NRCS state technical committee adopt recommendations of local NGOs and foresters who are most familiar with costs in that area. In addition, producers who are in their first 5 years of an existing contract should be eligible to receive additional management assistance throughout the life of the contract, similar to the new contracts.
- Updated Rental Rates: Recent FSA rental rate reductions have had an adverse impact on enrollment and re-enrollment activity. Because of this and because economically sound rental rates are integral to the success of the CREP, Congress wanted to be sure producers felt adequately compensated for the rent of their land. We look forward having ample time to propose an alternative soil rental rate, should the initial offering be unduly low.
- Need for Partial Practice Incentive Payments: In recognition that farmers may not be reimbursed for costs associated with RFB for several years, we encourage timely partial practice incentive payments (PIPs). This is an issue that was raised by several Chesapeake Bay states in their Chesapeake Bay Riparian Forest Buffer Task Force recommendations in 2015 and was a key provision in the Casey Act. We recommend that the Department adopt regulatory and revised 2-CRP Handbook language that allows partial payment of PIPs after the completion of major practice components, such as installation of stream fencing, water crossings, alternative water development, and tree planting. PIP partial payments could piggyback on the current partial payments of cost-share if that increases efficiency.
- Support for Technical Assistance: Congress recognized the importance of FSA, in consultation with the US Forest Service, to provide direct TA support through NGOs or state forestry agencies. There has been some successful piloting of this in the Chesapeake watershed resulting in enrollment efficiencies. We have found that more cross-training of TA providers (agricultural, wildlife, forestry, land conservation) is helpful. In 2015, FSA recognized that additional TA was warranted for RFBs and worked with the Forest Service and state forestry agencies to deliver well-designed and well-managed riparian forest buffers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Continued funding for these trained riparian foresters is needed in FY19.
- Regional Conservation Partnership Program: Finally, the 2018 Farm Bill expands RCPP to include Conservation Reserve Program enrollments. This opens new partnering opportunities and is vitally important in the Chesapeake for integrating on-farm best management practices, such as precision nutrient management, with critical riparian water quality practices, such as riparian forest buffers.
- Keep CREP open and available to the extent possible: CREP has experienced extended closures making its continued availability a source of uncertainty. It has also led to farmers not being reimbursed for many months after incurring costs, despite there being contracts in place. Clearer communication with field personnel is warranted as the program evolves.
- Flexibility with mid-contract management. Since not all acres under the same contract require the same treatment, more flexibility in the delivery of mid-contract management is warranted. Such flexibility will help make management more efficient and save money since 100% of management practices will be paid.