Conservation partners across Nebraska pitched in to help when Pheasants Forever organized a campaign recently to meet with landowners statewide and speak with them about the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
CRP is a voluntary conservation program that offers environmental benefits such as erosion control and wildlife habitat while providing annual payments that add to farm income. The soil rental rates on which annual CRP payments are calculated rose by an average of 13% in 2014, with some counties seeing a 30% increase, so PF and its partners decided it was time to invite landowners to consider CRP as one of their options. In addition, the timing of the meetings underlined the approaching February 26 deadline for General CRP sign-up, while also pointing out the many options available under Continuous CRP.
In late December, PF sent 43,280 letters to Nebraska landowners, giving them an overview of CRP, notifying them of the increased rental rates and, in most cases, inviting them to an informational meeting to learn more about the program’s opportunities. The RWBJV’s GIS office helped develop the mailing list by conducting the analysis that identified landowners whose tracts of land were in priority areas; letters also went to previously-enrolled landowners whose CRP contracts had recently expired, and to those in several targeted counties.
In cooperation with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and USDA, PF hosted 56 informational landowner meetings statewide, led by local Farm Bill wildlife biologists. Most meetings were held in January, shortly after landowners received the CRP letter.
The targeted, carefully timed letter seems to have been overwhelmingly successful. In south-central Nebraska, for example, some 100 landowners attended Farm Bill wildlife biologist Jessica Edgar’s meetings. Many attendees, she said, indicated they had learned of the meeting through the CRP letter, which also included a map showing the new rental rates. “A lot of them came with the letter in hand,” she said. Additional publicity came from local newspaper articles, FSA newsletters, and personal phone calls.
Jennifer Frisch, the Farm Bill wildlife biologist based in Fairbury, says her meetings drew a variety of landowners, including many who had never heard of CRP before. Attendees not only learned about the program basics, but heard about the value of high-diversity seedings, the benefits of pollinator habitat, and the need for mid-contract management.
That’s good news. The better news is that interest in the meetings appears to be translating into interest in CRP enrollments. “For about a month after our CRP meetings, I was getting phone calls every single day, sometimes once an hour or more,” Frisch reports. “They all wanted to know more about their options and to set up site visits to see what they could do.”
Jess Edgar likewise noted that several people who attended her meetings are now enrolled in CRP. Response may have been especially strong in counties with more dryland farming and greater increases in rental rates. But, she says, “across the board, interest was up, statewide.”
The support of conservation partners was a big part of the program’s success. NGPC’s wildlife biologist John Laux, for example, attended all of Edgar’s meetings and spoke about access and mid-contract management. Local PF chapters donated money for food, and members attended the meetings. FSA staff – with whom producers generally already had working relationships – also gave presentations. “We had amazing support,” says Edgar. “Everybody really came together.”