The New and Improved CREP for the Illinois River in Arkansas

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:05/03/2012

How the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in northwest Arkansas can beat the price of a cow/calf operation . . .

“Under the original program, I could beat everything a producer is making with the exception of a cow/calf operation.  The reason for that is the price of cattle has been relatively high over the past couple years.  The return in northwest Arkansas was over $200 per acre.  But all that has changed now that our request to increase the CREP incentives has been incorporated into the program.  Increased cost of fuel, fertilizer, and hay has made participation in the Illinois River CREP more competitive.”

That is the assessment of Tony Franco, Chief of the Price Support/Conservation Division in the Arkansas State FSA Office.  He’s talking about the recent announcement by USDA of added incentives for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program targeting the Illinois River in northwest Arkansas.  Mr. Franco was instrumental in requesting a reduction in targeted acreage (from 15,000 to 10,000) to enable higher payments to landowners enrolling in the CREP after a dismal response to the first iteration of the program beginning in 2009.

The CREP is a partnership between the Farm Services Agency (FSA) and the state of Arkansas, with support from the poultry industry and the Walton Family Foundation.  Its goal is to “conserve, restore and protect water quality and other natural resources within the targeted area through the installation and maintenance of riparian buffers.”  It does this by funding land management practices that will benefit water quality while curbing development through permanent or long-term easements.

Under the old program, Franco had calculated the average per acre payment that a producer might expect for enrolling land in the CREP.  The FSA and state paid 90% of the cost-share for installation of riparian or grass buffer strips.  That cost-share combined with the annual rental payment for 14 to 15 years would provide farmers in the area - mostly cattlemen - with about $118/acre.  

Compared to the average annual rental payment of $84.50, this number seems pretty good.  However, the farmer still has to bear the brunt of the entire 10% cost-share for installing buffer strips in the first year.  Farmers had to weigh the slightly increased rental payments against these up front costs as well as the added obligation to keep cows out of their streams.  

The revised CREP incentives will now provide an average of $200.00 per acre to a farmer or producer - rivaling even what a cow/calf operation can make.  In addition, buffer strips may exceed 300 feet “if overland out-of-bank flow shows evidence of scour erosion, sediment deposition or debris deposits.”  

This is good news for both the environment and producers in the the Arkansas Illinois River CREP area.  “Our challenge,” says Franco, “is to show landowners how giving up their land for hay and grazing will benefit not only them, but the land and their family.  By reducing sediment loads by as much as 80 to 90%, water quality and fishing will improve.  Participants in this program will be leaving a legacy for future generations.”