Life after CRP: Returning land to crops

Alex Whitebrook/ July 9, 2018/ News/ 0 comments

David Burkland walks through a field of knee-high corn on a late-June morning and studies it with experienced eyes. Its condition isn’t ideal, but he’s mostly satisfied — especially since the field was covered with grass and in the Conservation Reserve Program a year ago.

“This isn’t going to be any kind of bumper crop,” the veteran Grand Forks, N.D., farmer says. “But putting it back (into crop production) just made sense.”

Burkland, who farms with son-in-law Evan Montgomery, isn’t alone. Thousands of Upper Midwest farmers have returned CRP into crop production, or soon will. Though restoring land to crops can be an opportunity, it creates challenges, too, especially early on.

“I’d really push a pencil and realize that the first year or two that land just isn’t going to be up to the standards of neighboring fields that have been in crops for a long time,” says David Franzen, North Dakota State University extension soil specialist. “It’s going to take some time and money and energy to get it into shape.”

CRP is a federal program that pays landowners to take environmentally sensitive land out of production, with the land planted to grass and other vegetation. CRP contracts are for either 10 to 15 years — and the land potentially can be re-enrolled — so the vegetation typically is in place for many years.

That complicates returning the land to crop production. The no-longer-desired vegetative cover needs to be destroyed or removed, which requires both time and money. Weeds or insects or both can pose special problems. Often, over time, the land has become rough or bumpy, increasing the difficulty of planting and harvesting it. And soil nutrients, especially nitrogen, which is crucial to plant growth, usually are low and need to be replenished.

Doing all that “is hard to accomplish in the first year,” Franzen says.

Burkland’s advice to landowners considering putting CRP land back into crops:

“Every situation is different. But talk with people who have done it. Get a basic feel for what you want to plant, what chemicals you’ll use to get that ground into shape,” he says.

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