Udall vows to continue conservation program

By Tonya Garner

Congressman Tom Udall is concerned about the USDA’s plan to dramatically reduce participation in the Conservation Reserve Program.

According to Udall, D-N.M., 1,664 farmers and ranchers in New Mexico are currently enrolled in the CRP program. This keeps 596,624 acres of environmentally sensitive land out of crop production. The bulk of this farm and ranch land is in Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties.

Established in 1985 under the Food Security Act, the purpose of the program is to cut down on soil erosion and increase the health and population of wildlife.

Landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to retire eligible cropland into 10- to 15- year contracts with the federal government. The average rental rate is $50.24 per acre.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced last month that when current CRP contracts expire , only landowners of the most environmentally sensitive land would be allowed a renewal on their agreements. The proposal would enroll only 20 percent of the current contracts. According to Udall, the policy would mean the loss of nearly $1.5 million in eastern New Mexico’s counties.

“I support this program to encourage conservation,” Udall said. “It would be devastating if the USDA reduces this program.”

Local farmer Rick Ledbetter said the diminished contracts would not adversely affect him.

“I only have 90 acres in the program,” Ledbetter said. The farmer said he does not plan to farm his land if his contract is not renewed.

“I might graze cattle on it,” Ledbetter said. “I would utilize it in some way.”

According to Ledbetter, most of the area land currently in CRP is dry land or “weak-watered.” He said the federal program has been beneficial because it has allowed farmers to earn money on substandard land. “Commodity prices are cheap,” Ledbetter said. “Marginal land is not going to be productive.”

According to Udall, eastern New Mexico has always had a high level of enrollment in the conservation program.

“Many small farmers can lose their land if their CRP contract is not renewed, as the money helps make the property payment,” Udall said.

The U.S. representative said he intends to see that the federal government maintains its commitment to conservation. “This program has been a success since 1985,” Udall said.