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Minnesota offers incentive program to make permanent easements for prairies and wetlands.

Les Johnson walks among native grasses next to a burn conducted to regenerate grasses. (Progressive Farmer image by Des Keller)

In southwest Minnesota's Murray County, landowner Mark Thompson waxes poetic about a 124-acre parcel of land thick with tall native prairie grasses swaying in the breeze and growing up to the edge of a beaver pond.

"I recently saw a huge snapping turtle in the pond," says Thompson, who grew up farming with family in the area but has lived in Oregon the past 19 years. "It makes the hair on my arms stand on end to think we've got a reptile in this water that might be almost as old as I am. This is really rewarding."

Thompson is in the process of making that 124 acres a native grass and wildlife haven forever by putting it into a permanent easement under a 2-year-old joint effort by USDA's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Minnesota's Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve program. The permanent easement prevents Thompson or any subsequent owners of the land from developing it or farming the land -- forever.

In exchange, Thompson would receive a payment now that is near market value for the land. Additionally, state and federal funds pay many of the costs to establish native prairie, restore wetlands or rearrange and reroute drainage tiles.

BEST USE OF LAND

This particular 124-acre piece has been in a succession of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts that have kept it out of farming for more than 20 years. Lest you think Thompson is an out-of-touch absentee landlord, think again. He and his brother farm over 2000 acres in the region.

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"I do try to farm pretty aggressively and productively where I do farm," Thompson says. He rents some of his ground to his brother, Tony Thompson, who grows and markets native grass seed and is very interested and experienced in prairie restoration. "We ask ourselves for some properties, 'Is this the best use for this land, putting it permanently in conservation?'," Mark says. "I think the answer is 'yes' for these 124 acres."

As commodity prices continue to stay relatively low, many farmers ponder the merits of sidelining certain properties that are marginal for farming or would be ideal for wetland and wildlife purposes. And, this latest CREP-RIM combination isn't the only game in town.

Les Johnson, who owns more than 1,000 acres in southern Minnesota, near Windom, has been a proponent of conservation for decades. He has placed hundreds of acres in both the CRP program and the RIM program, but hasn't enrolled any ground in the new combo program.

"There have been some glitches in the newest program that don't work well for me, but the goal of protecting some of this land, especially along waterways, is a good one," says Johnson, who is a veteran when it comes to reestablishing and nurturing native prairies and riparian areas. "I've always been upset with people that farm right down to the water's edge. And, given the really wet weather of the last few years, we need to hold back the erosion."

That is precisely the reason Mark Thompson is placing another 29 acres in the CREP-RIM program. Even though the land is highly productive for farming, it adjoins a creek that, because of increasingly wet years, is eroding its edges at a faster rate.

"The high waterline of that creek in the spring seems to be increasing," Thompson says. "The water is out of its banks and into the field more frequently. What we're essentially doing is creating an extended buffer."

ATTRACTIVE INCENTIVES

In Minnesota's case, the incentives for this newest state-federal easement program are substantial. The goal of the combined CREP-RIM effort, which is voluntary, is to get 60,000 acres of sensitive farmland enrolled in 54 counties across the southern third and western half of the state.

In Cottonwood County, Becky Buchholz, the farm bill assistant/program technician for the Soil and Water Conservation District, says they have enrolled 650 acres there in this effort. She is working with Mark Thompson to put the 29-acre parcel he owns in Cottonwood County in the program.

"Between the two programs, I generally tell landowners considering this permanent easement that they'll likely be paid from $6,800 per acre up to $10,000 per acre for enrolling," Buchholz says. Additionally, much of the cost to establish native prairie and filter strips, or to restore a wetland on the property will be paid between 85% and 100%, depending on the eligible costs and program practice payment limits.

This CREP-RIM effort, also known as MN CREP, began in 2017 with $150 million in state funds and $300 million from the federal government. More than two years into a five-year-plus effort to enroll up to 60,000 acres, state officials say they have enrolled more than 12,000 acres. Of the 12,000, about 70% involve wetland restoration with another 5% requiring establishing filter, or buffer, strips along waterways.

"Certainly there is a risk to a permanent easement," Thompson says. "But, there is also a risk I'd want to set aside some of the acres, and these programs won't be available in the future. I'm really trying to protect these little gems."

Know the Programs

> Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
The federal CRP program has existed for more than 30 years and is administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmland owners voluntarily agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species to improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for CRP are 10 to 15 years. In 2017, there were 24.3 million acres enrolled nationally. Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and Texas are the top five states with land in the program, totaling more than 10 million acres.

> Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)
The CREP is part of the aforementioned CRP program and is also administered by the FSA. The two programs are different in that CREP partners with individual state governments to address high-priority conservation concerns. Land can't be enrolled in CREP if that state doesn't have a CREP agreement. In Minnesota, for instance, CREP is working with that state's Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve program. There are an estimated 1.5 million acres enrolled in CREP nationally.

> Reinvest In Minnesota Reserve
Known as RIM, this 33-year-old program pays landowners a near-market-value for their land in return for a permanent easement. In addition, state funds provide for the expenses to restore the land as natural prairie or wetland as determined by the specific contract. Landowners keep ownership of the land, and no public access is allowed unless granted by the landowner. In 2017, RIM began working in conjunction with CREP to try and enroll 60,000 acres in permanent easements in 54 counties along or near sensitive waters.

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