Wednesday May 22, 2013
Oregon Agriculture Takes Full Advantage of Conservation ProgramsSalem-News.com
Federal conservation payments to Oregon have increased 400% in the last eight years.
(SALEM, Ore.) - Oregon’s farmers and ranchers are among the nation’s leaders when it comes to tapping into federal conservation programs. Since 2000, the amount of government payments for conservation programs to Oregon producers has grown by more than 400 percent, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That reflects the commitment Oregon agriculture has for protecting and improving the state’s natural resources.
“I think Oregon agriculture has a very good story to tell in terms of its contribution to protecting and enhancing the environment," says Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba. “Our farmers and ranchers recognize the importance of investing in measures that sustain the natural resources so important to agriculture.”
The dramatic rise in conservation program payments by the federal government is evident in the statistics. In 2000, Oregon received about $23 million. That number has steadily increased over the past eight years to nearly $94 million received in 2007. Those dollars have resulted in several on-the-ground projects that have made a difference in improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and enhancing wildlife habitat– all key measures of overall environmental health in Oregon.
“Oregon has positioned itself well to compete nationally for some of these conservation funds that have come through the Farm Bill,” says Larry Ojua, manager of ODA’s Soil and Water Conservation District Program. “Recent Farm Bills have dedicated more money in green payments and conservation programs. Even before the emphasis, our state had done a lot of conservation work that has not gone unnoticed. As an example, the federal Conservation Security Program (CSP) rewards producers who are already doing good conservation work. It incentivizes them to do more. Many of those payments are coming to Oregon because we have made conservation a high priority.”
The federal dollars don’t just sit in an idle account. The money is being spent wisely.
“We wouldn’t be receiving more than $93 million in conservation program money if Oregon wasn’t stepping up and providing an investment in protecting natural resources to begin with,” says Ojua.
Oregon’s historically strong conservation ethic is backed up by organized state and local organizations that promote the federal programs and educate landowners about the benefits of participation. Outreach and education efforts create an awareness that there is funding to help landowners who want to make improvements on their property. Local soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) and watershed councils have been selling the idea for years. Now that there is more to sell– the 2008 Farm Bill dedicates even more money for conservation– there is an even greater opportunity for Oregon.
Some programs essentially pay rent for environmentally-sensitive land that is taken out of agricultural production. Other programs offer funds for technical assistance and on-the-ground projects. In both cases, financial incentives are drawing a high percentage of farmers and ranchers who are wanting to do the right thing.
The economic benefits of participation serve to enhance the environmental benefits. One specific program– the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)– is a good example of how federal funds help at the landowner level. CREP provides incentives to landowners who install and maintain riparian buffers on agricultural land.
“Since the inception of CREP in 1999, there will be more than $59 million paid out to Oregon farmers and ranchers for the life of the 15-year contracts they signed,” says Ojua. “That money includes rental payments and on-the-ground payments for such conservation practices as installing trees and shrubs along streambanks.”
CREP provides great leverage for state dollars. On average, Oregon has been investing an additional $2 million through the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) as a supplement to the federal funds earmarked for riparian improvements.
“The investment in CREP has allowed our soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance, help producers put together conservation plans, assist in the construction and implementation of specific projects, and promote the program to others,” says Ojua.
Voters have also enabled SWCDs to effectively enhance the money that comes from conservation payments. There are now 11 districts with a permanent tax rate, as approved by voters. Those districts can now offer their own cost share program, giving producers multiple opportunities for funds and assistance.
“There is a lot of traditional conservation work the districts have always done,” says Ojua. “For Wasco and Sherman counties, districts have been successfully dealing with erosion control. These are places with a high percentage of producers adopting reduced tillage or no-till systems. In the Willamette Valley, where there are so many specialty crops, districts have been implementing cover crops, irrigation water management, and integrated pest management. In Hood River County, weather stations have been installed and producers are figuring out when and how they should spray their orchards to reduce drift– practices that minimize impact to water quality. All these management techniques and projects are making a difference.”
Whether it is CSP, CREP, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), or the long list of other federal programs that offer money for good conservation work, Oregon producers are aggressively taking advantage– in some cases, outcompeting their counterparts in other states for available funds.
“If a producer wants to keep part of their land in wetlands production, as a riparian buffer, or as a field border, it’s good for such things as water quality and wildlife habitat,” says Ojua. “The fact that we have the ability to compensate them for their efforts makes it even better.”
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