A new rule eliminating crop bases on federally-owned land will have a serious detrimental effect on food sources for waterfowl, according to farm and wildlife managers in two of the most important wildlife refuges in the Mississippi Flyway.
The rule was implemented in the last days of the Bush administration and stipulates that “land owned by federal agencies will have base acres terminated effective for the 2009 crop year unless the land is subject to a lease agreement which was executed before Dec. 23, 2008, and is in effect beyond the 2009 crop year.”
Farm groups are banding together in an effort to repeal the rule, which essentially eliminates direct and counter-cyclical payments on the land, but time is running short for farmers who expect to begin ground preparation in the weeks ahead.
Willie Oxner, who operates Dixie Farms, located in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, generates a significant portion of his income from a lease with USFWS. He received a letter from his local FSA the day after Christmas 2008 informing him that bases were being eliminated on the 1,500 acres he leases from the refuge.
“I just about fell out,” Oxner said. “With what I, my father William and brother Michael farm, we're talking a little over $500,000 in government money. And they notify me the day after Christmas. Who do you get a hold of? I couldn't believe it was happening.”
Farmers who signed new leases prior to Dec. 23, 2008, will be allowed to keep bases for 2009. Because Oxner had not signed a new lease, the elimination of his bases is immediate. “It was like the plane was going down, and there's no time to grab anything. It was like, brace yourself, we're going down.”
As of late February, little progress had been made on overturning the rule, and Oxner's farming plans for next year were still up in the air. Two things are clear, however. The impact of the rule would not only put Oxner at a competitive disadvantage to other farmers, it could deal a serious blow to wildlife efforts all over the Southeast and Mid-South.
Oxner participates in the Refuge Cooperative Farming Program administered by USFWS. The quarter share lease agreement requires that Oxner leave one-fourth of his crop unharvested for duck food. In rice alone, this amounts to over 500,000 pounds of duck food annually, plus whatever is lost due to harvesting and spillage and from other crops. He also produces milo, soybeans and millet. As part of the lease agreement, Oxner manages a moist soil habitat for ducks and maintains and repairs equipment owned by Fish and Wildlife.
Oxner started farming the property in 1986, two years before USFWS acquired it in 1988. “They've been great to work with. I have nothing but good things to say about the local Fish and Wildlife Service and the local Farm Service Agency. They were blindsided. I don't hold any of them accountable for any of this.”
The Cache River Wildlife Refuge where Oxner farms covers over 67,000 acres in east central Arkansas. About 85 percent is bottomland, hardwood wetlands lying in the flood zones of the Cache and White rivers and Bayou DeView. The rest is a mix of farmland and upland acres.
According to Jonathan Windley, a wildlife biologist at the Cache River Wildlife Refuge for 11 years, the refuge has been declared one of the most important wintering areas for mallard ducks in North America, providing habitat and food for over half a million birds annually.
Windley says the Refuge Cooperative Farming Program is central to the refuge's objective of providing food and habitat for wildlife. “We have to provide a certain amount of duck energy days for the waterfowl that rest on this refuge. A large part of that comes from the crops that are grown here, whether it's rice or milo, or moist soil or other flooded up areas.
“If we didn't have the cooperative farmer here, we would not come close to meeting those duck energy days. It would be detrimental to the success of the refuge.”
The farmer also brings his knowledge to the refuge, Windley said. “We're all land managers, but when you have farmers who have been on the ground for 20 years, they know where a drop of water is going to go after it hits that farm. They provide advice to us on water management and water control structures. They are just a wealth of information. It goes well beyond just growing a crop.”
The refuge serves as a sort of gas station for ducks, according to Windley. “It provides a stopover point for birds going on to Texas and Louisiana. They stop and fuel up. They have to have the hot foods, the rice and the corn and the moist soil.
“On the way back, they have the same requirements. Our goals are to winter these ducks to be sure we meet all the life cycle requirements they have, so they can be healthy enough to get back to the nesting areas to produce the broods and make the trip back. The Cooperative Farming Program provides a big part of that.”
Windley said in February that the refuge had not received notice that bases were being removed from USFWS property. “The first time I was made aware of any changes was when Willie called me and told me. We had no prior knowledge whatsoever of this occurring. It came out of left field and blindsided the entire USFWS system.”
Oxner isn't sure what the future holds for him. He says USFWS has told him that “until the issue is resolved with a definitive yes or no, we can't do anything, as far as signing a new lease agreement is concerned.”
Oxner says adjustments such as lowering lease rates to compensate for the loss of income from subsidy payments is a conundrum because Oxner's “rent” is essentially the food that he leaves for wildlife. Therefore any adjustments to help him would hurt the ducks. He's also concerned that the USDA action may make it difficult, if not impossible, to get an operating loan for 2009.
Oxner and other farmers are also upset that the government circumvented standard policy in implementing the rule. “The government is the government,” Oxner said. “It can do what it wants. It has its own rules. But what I'm asking is why are they secretly doing it if it's right. Very few things that are done right are done in secret.”
Willie's brother, Michael Oxner, who farms in the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, says the subsidy he receives helps offset expenses he incurs for non-crop responsibilities he has on the refuge. Oxner regularly pumps water from the nearby Red River into crop fields, cypress swamps and fishing lakes. “We route water on this farm for 8 miles.”
Oxner is also responsible for maintenance and repair on equipment owned by USFWS, including a massive, 400-horsepower pump on the Red River which can generate some equally massive repair bills.
The Oxners, who employ 14 full-time hands and nine part-time hands, say that potential losses for affected farmers have been dramatically deflated by USDA, which has created further confusion and delays in getting action on the rule. During a discussion with one congressman's office, Oxner was told that the entire state of Arkansas would only lose $26,000. “I asked them where they got those figures. They said USDA. I told them that one of my farms alone has $40,000 in government payments.”
According to Windley, there are cooperative farmer programs throughout the Mid-South and Southeast. “Almost every refuge is involved in cooperative farming in one way or another. There is concern on a lot of refuges about losing our farmers. The question is can they continue to farm on these large tracts of land.”
Many farmers feel betrayed by the rule. Jerry Mixon, who farms grain sorghum, rice and corn in Quitman County, Miss., on land rented from the Department of the Interior, said, “I don't know why the Bush administration did this to us. We've always supported Republican candidates. Now here I am calling Democrats trying to get some help.”
Mixon rents the federal land under a “gentleman's agreement” in November or December, then I sign a contract sometime in February. It hurts to be blindsided by something like this.”
Under the lease, Mixon agrees to leave 25 percent of his crop in the field for wildlife.
USDA took advantage of a rule written into the 1996 farm bill and carried over in succeeding farm bills, which states, “The owner of a farm may reduce, at any time, the base acres for any commodity for the farm.” The section also states that the reduction “shall be made permanent in a manner prescribed by the secretary.”
Without explanation, USDA applied the rule to itself, and in December it became a permanent rule in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations — apparently without the usual comment period associated with such a rule. It applies to land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Farm Service Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, etc., and essentially eliminates direct and counter-cyclical payments on the land.