A lot of people celebrated Earth Day, but few did it as close to nature as Karis Gutter, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.
Sitting a few feet from the edge of a bottomland hardwood forest, Gutter signed an agreement with the state of Mississippi to begin the enrollment process for Mississippi farmers in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program or CREP.
Gutter and 27 other federal, state and conservation officials met in the wooded area near some catfish ponds a few miles north of Yazoo City, Miss. The site was selected to help emphasize one of the goals of program – restoring native hardwood forests in the Mississippi Valley.
“We want the endangered black bear preserved, we want migratory birds to have a place to come to for habitat, and this investment does just that,” said Gutter, who was interviewed following the signing ceremony, which was attended by representatives of organizations such as the Nature Conservancy.”
Signup for the program will begin on Monday, April 27, said Gutter, who is himself a native of Mississippi. As many as 8,000 acres of land could be set aside for bottomland hardwood restoration efforts as a result of the signup.
The initiative, part of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, will help improve water quality and restore native hardwood forests in Bolivar, Coahoma, Holmes, Humphreys, Issaquena, Leflore, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Washington, and Yazoo counties in the Mississippi Delta.
New era of conservation
“This represents a new era of conservation and forestry that builds on the good work of America’s farmers, ranchers and foresters,” said Gutter, who helps oversee USDA’s Farm Service Agency as deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.
“In addition to establishing thousands of acres of woods and wetlands, this program will make a difference by improving water quality, and reducing sediment, nutrients and waterborne pathogens. It also protects threatened and endangered species while enhancing wildlife habitat, leading to more birds, mammals and aquatic organisms in the Delta.”
Gutter said he and his fellow USDA employees “were honored” to be able to come to Yazoo County and celebrate Earth Day on April 23 and to announce the completion of an agreement under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
Under the program, farmers and ranchers will receive incentives to help them dedicate land to planting of bottomland hardwood trees, grasses and shrubs to prevent farm sediment from going into waterways. The ultimate aim is to protect wildlife habitat and endangered species and endangered fish.
“We’re excited about this investment today and look forward to the state of Mississippi getting sensitive ag lands enrolled in the program,” said Gutter.
FSA and state officials expect to initially enroll 4,000 acres in the program and then to stop and evaluate how the program is working. After the review, they plan to enroll an additional 4,000 acres in the initial phase of the program.
This year marks the 30th year of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, a federally-funded voluntary program that contracts with agricultural producers so that environmentally sensitive agricultural land is not farmed or ranched, but instead used for conservation benefits.
Program participants establish long-term, resource-conserving plant species, such as approved grasses or trees (known as “covers”) to control soil erosion, improve water quality and develop wildlife habitat. In return, USDA provides participants with cost-share assistance for establishing the covers and with annual payments for land in the conservation contract.
With CREP, high-priority regional conservation goals are identified by local, state, or tribal governments or non-governmental organizations, and the federal funds and resources of Conservation Reserve Program are supplemented with the non-federal funds and resources to achieve those goals.
The Mississippi Delta CREP is a partnership between USDA, the Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and private organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Walton Family Foundation, which provided a significant financial contribution for implementation of the agreement, Delta F.A.R.M., Delta Wildlife, Entergy, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi State University, the Yazoo Water Management District and the Mississippi Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Parks.
Through this partnership, participants will be offered incentives to install the conservation practices for a contract period lasting from 14 to 15 years. State and private partners will contribute 20 percent of the overall program costs, and costs of water monitoring and technical assistance.
When enrollment begins Monday, eligible farmers and growers can qualify for annual rental payments, a 50-percent cost-share for installing the approved conservation practices, incentive payments of 40 percent of the practice costs, and enrollment bonuses of up to $300 per acre. CREP is administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency.
More information is available at local Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation District or FSA offices. Visit http://offices.usda.gov to find your local FSA office. To learn more about USDA’s conservation efforts, visit www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation.