The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) could spell better times for both owners of low-productivity farmland and the environment in California's Sacramento Valley.

A joint effort established last year by USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) and the state of California, CREP is transforming 10,000 acres of marginally productive and erodible land into habitat for ducks, pheasants, and other wildlife.

At the same time, the voluntary program seeks to reduce soil erosion while improving surface and groundwater quality and air quality.

Participating growers sign 10- to 15-year contracts with CCC to convert the land to native grasses, trees, shallow ponds, and other types of wildlife habitat.

In return, participants receive five types of payments, including an annual rental payment based on the soil rental rate.

Special payment

In addition to the normal rental payment, the CCC will make a special incentive payment as follows: for land devoted to irrigated rice land, $160 per acre; for all other irrigated land, $100 per acre; or for dryland, posted county rates by soil type.

Contract offers have been extended for about 7,500 acres. Land having poor soils, frequent flood damage, limited water supplies, or other problems that limit productivity is eligible. The program is confined to the counties of Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba.

When contracts expire, farmers can opt to return the land to crop production, although the state of California is offering 1,500 acres of perpetual easements for lands better suited to restoring to wetlands. The wetlands will typically be used or leased for waterfowl hunting.

At an estimated cost of $24 million, including $19 million in federal funds through the CCC and $5 million from the state of California, the program is being implemented through USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA).

Land returned to wetlands and other native conditions will provide critical brooding habitat for waterfowl and other bird species.

Hunting, tourism

According to FAS officials, increased hunting and associated tourism could come to Sacramento Valley communities through habitat restoration of as many as 27,000 ducklings and 20,000 pheasants.

More than 90 percent of the native vegetation of the Sacramento Valley, a vital habitat along the Pacific Flyway, has become cropland.

Larry Plum, FAS state conservationist at Davis, said the first contracts were to be signed early in April, following a ranking of applications. “We are looking for land that is marginal, not the most productive. Some of the most unproductive land is ideal for upland habitat,” he said.

Ed Burns, biologist with the California Waterfowl Association in Sacramento, has been evaluating applications on the basis of benefit to mallard and pheasant populations.

Some CREP participants, Burns said, will be following or planting to create ideal upland nesting cover consisting of grasses and forbs 18 to 24 inches high.

Much of the contracted acreage is poor yielding land in Yolo and Solano counties, about half of it in rice and about half in safflower or other row crops.

CREP, also active in 16 other states, is a combination of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with state and local programs to meet state-specific objectives. CRP previously offered only dryland rental rates to California farmers.

CREP, however, expands the concept by offering annual rental payments at irrigated cropland rental values to farmers converting that type of land to wildlife habitat.

Information on CREP is available by contacting Larry Plum at (530) 792-5520 or FSA offices in the eligible counties.

e-mail: dbryant@primediabusiness.com