USDA, state agree on $100 million plan to curb Minnesota River runoff

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department and Minnesota officials have agreed on a $100 million plan to take 100,000 acres of farmland along the Minnesota River out of production to curb runoff of fertilizer and other pollutants.
Farmers who agree to idle their land for at least 35 years would receive an up-front bonus plus guaranteed annual payments for the first 15 years. Annual payments are likely to range from $50 to $100 an acre, officials say. The bonus would vary according to the length of the contract.
Growers could sign up for as little as 15 years, but they wouldn’t get the bonus.
Farmers say it remains to be seen whether the cash will be sufficient to get large numbers of growers to join the program.
But Rep. David Minge, D-Minn., predicts that it “will be a tremendous boon for the Minnesota River,” the state’s most polluted. The program is on offshoot of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which has been widely popular since it was set up in the mid-1980s.
“These easements will provide recreational and hunting land for area residents to enjoy year after year, and will provide a buffer zone to halt the flow of agricultural runoff into the river and its tributaries,” Minge said.
The Minnesota River program will be unveiled at a news conference in Bloomington, Minn., on Thursday.
USDA approval of the program, which would be jointly funded by USDA and the state, had been held up by farmers’ objections to an earlier plan that would have required farmers to give up use of their land permanently.
The goal of the plan is still to enroll as much of the land in permanent easements as possible. The size of the bonuses will vary according to the length of the contracts, and the maximum bonus will be offered only to farmers who sign permanent easements, said Greg Anderson, an agricultural program specialist in federal Farm Service Agency’s state office.
The maximum bonus will be 40 percent of a farmer’s total 15-year payment, he said Tuesday. A farmer who enrolls 10 acres in the program at $100 an acre, which works out to $15,000 over 15 years, will get a one-time bonus of $6,000.
Supporters of the permanent easements say they would ensure that state and federal taxpayers receive lasting conservation benefits in return for their money.
Farmers are unlikely to go for permanent easements, said David Haugo, a Waubon, Minn., farmer who chairs a state USDA advisory committee. Still, the program could work “as long as the option is there for less than a permanent easement,” Haugo said.
The acreage that would be enrolled in the program is prone to flooding and much of it is marginal cropland.
“Most farmers want to be a part of a solution” to the river’s pollution problem, said Al Christopherson, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. “Certainly if it can be demonstrated … that this is indeed a problem and this is indeed a solution to the problem, don’t underestimate the willingness of farmers to partake.”