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Buffer Regulations, Benefits, and Challenges

Buffer is not a four-letter word, but in Minnesota, it might as well be one. Governor Mark Dayton’s campaign last winter and spring for mandatory 50-foot buffers along streams, lakes, and ditches brought a lot of heat to this northern state. Dayton even suggested that farm practices are turning the state’s 10,000 lakes into cesspools.

"There were a lot of lightning rods to this,” recalls Kevin Paap, who farms near Mankato and who is president of Minnesota Farm Bureau. “One week I had over 60 calls from people wondering what was going on.”

Paap has buffer strips along drainage ditches on his own farm, with some of it enrolled in USDA’s enhanced conservation reserve program, but he sees relying on buffer strips to clean runoff from farm fields as overly simplistic. “A one-size-fits-all program isn’t the most effective,” he says.

The regulation vise keeps closing
A special session of the legislature in June gave Dayton his buffer law, without some of the more onerous original proposals such as flyovers by the state DNR for enforcement. A rigid 50-foot width near public rivers and lakes became a 50-foot average with a 30-foot minimum. Fields along public drainage ditches must have 16½-foot buffers (already required in Minnesota but not consistently enforced by counties). 
The deadline for 50-foot buffers along lakes and rivers is November 2017. For ditches, it starts a year later. Farmers who don’t comply face $500 fines.

Minnesota’s buffer battle follows a lawsuit filed against drainage districts in Iowa last winter over nitrates and tougher fertilizer application laws in Ohio.

Even though Paap’s group and other Minnesota producer organizations fought the original buffer plan, Paap doubts the compromise bill is the last state regulation for farmers.
Dayton’s original proposal would have taken at least 125,000 acres of cropland out of production, and some small farmers complained they would be hit hard.

From Louisiana to the Dakotas, water quality and conservation are growing challenges for producers.

A partial solution?
Some farmers see economic benefits from buffers with today’s low crop prices and costly inputs, however.

Darrel Mosel, who grows crops and raises livestock near Gaylord, Minnesota, is one. Part of his farm borders drainage ditches. There, clay subsoil mixed with topsoil when the ditch was made.

“Grass will grow in that clay mixture, but corn and soybeans seem to get stunted in it,” he says. “You spend about the same amount of money as on the other acres, but you get about 60% of a crop.”

Mosel thinks it’s good business sense to have a buffer along those ditches, especially if you use the hay for livestock or, instead, put it into the continuous conservation reserve progrsm (CCRP) and get a rental payment.

Mosel belongs to Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project, a conservation-minded group with farmer members who supported Dayton’s buffer efforts.

“I’m a little bit surprised the farm groups opposed this,” he says. “If nothing else, it was good PR for us.”

For Mosel, buffers are much more than just public relations for the farm industry, however. On his 600-acre grain and livestock farm, it’s part of farming efficiently, too. “If corn goes up to $8 again, I’m not going to worry about 3 or 4 acres in buffers. If it’s $3 or $4, I know I’m not going to make money on those acres,” he says.

Bigger benefits from CCRP
If the returns already are questionable on streamside soils that face erosion or flooding, entering that land into CCRP can tip buffer strips in your favor. Unlike the regular CRP, you can enroll in the CCRP at any time at a Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. CCRP rental payments from FSA are based on soil quality, not the bidding process for general CRP. In Minnesota, CCRP payments average $108 an acre. In Iowa, they’re $200. CCRP rents for top-quality soils can be quite a bit higher.

The original CRP is 30 years old this year. When it started, its main purpose was to take enough land out of production to help stabilize the depressed prices of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, when the 2014 Farm Bill was written, Congress reduced the cap on CRP acres nationwide from 32 million under the 2008 farm law to only 24 million. With $7 corn, many landowners were bailing out of CRP for higher cash rents just as the 2014 Farm Bill was drafted. That’s hardly the case today, and now the program seems too small. We could also use more acres in CRP, either continuous or general sign-up, to once again help stabilize prices. 

Earlier this year, a coalition of conservation and agribusiness groups wrote USDA, asking that 8 million acres of that 24 million-acre cap be devoted to CCRP.

“. . . FSA should refocus its efforts to meet the goals of today’s CRP to enroll cropland and marginal pastureland that benefits water quality, wildlife habitat, air quality, and reduces soil erosion, all of which would be strengthened through greater use of continuous sign-up,” says the letter signed by the National Grain and Feed Association, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and others.

Even 8 million acres, if concentrated in the Corn Belt, might be enough to affect prices, says Daryll Ray, a University of Tennessee agricultural economist. Instead of marginal land, “you’re taking highly productive land out of production, even if it’s only a few acres per farm,” Ray says.

Unfortunately, 8 million acres is a pipe dream right now. It’s likely to be 800,000 acres a year as the USDA administers CCRP, which includes pollinator habitat, wetlands, and other uses, not just buffers at the edge of cornfields. Of course, it’s not a net gain in CRP acres, either. Under those circumstances, Ray doesn’t see much price effect.

At a June hearing on conservation, key members of the House Agriculture Committee were interested in strengthening CRP. “At some point, I think as a committee, we have to reassess our CRP situation,” said former chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. 

For higher prices and cleaner water, the sooner that happens, the better. More CCRP can make buffers much more appealing.

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