Journal of the NACAA
Volume 12, Issue 2 - December, 2019
Participant Perspectives of the Virginia Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program’s Success
- Vines, K. , Continuing Professional Education Specialist, Ag, Leadership&communi, Virginia Tech
Bullard, S. S., Undergraduate Researcher, Virginia Tech
Woodford, H., Undergraduate Researcher, Virginia Tech
Kuri, S. K., Graduate Assistant, Virginia Tech
This qualitative research project explored the benefits and challenges associated with enrollment in the Virginia Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) from the perspective of the program participant. Virginia CREP is a component of the national Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Interviews were conducted with fifteen program participants in Virginia. All of the participants in this study were new program participants and wanted to renew their first contract because they were happy with the program. Interviewees recommended changes in program promotion and administration of riparian buffers. Constraints associated with low return on investment, fence installation, and the long project cycle were identified as program challenges in some cases.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was signed into law in 1985 and is administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) sector of the United States Department of Agriculture (Pratt, 2011). The program’s long-term goal is to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and prevent soil erosion through protection and rehabilitation of land (Allen, 2005). CRP provides landowners with a yearly payment in return for taking qualifying land out of use (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2016). Contracts for the program are voluntary and extend for ten to fifteen years (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2016).
As of 2016, 24 million acres of land were enrolled in the CRP program across the country. Each county is permitted to have a maximum of 25% of the total cropland protected by the program. However, the Deputy Administrator of the USDA may waive this rule in certain circumstances (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2016). In order to enroll land in CRP, it must be considered highly erodible, be adjacent to a water source, and have been in use for the production of an agricultural commodity in two of the last five years (Pratt, 2011). The enrollee must have owned the land for at least one year (Pratt, 2011). Other restrictions are listed on the USDA website for the program (https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/).
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is an enhancement of CRP and focuses on land that is identified as a concern in a particular state (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2016). All except a very small portion of one county in Virginia is eligible for participation in Virginia CREP (https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/soil-and-water/crep). Both federal and state governments provide funding for CREP. The amount of money put into the program is determined by the availability of funds provided by the national farm bill. There can be difficulty obtaining enough money for the program to function correctly (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2016) although the Virginia CREP website indicates that the current program is the most highly funded ever, at $91 million in both state and federal funds (https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/soil-and-water/crep). CREP is also administered through the USDA Farm Service Agency.
CRP and CREP provide multiple benefits. Producers are compensated for not using the land that is provided with enhancements to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat through the program. The land is often a strip of land between a crop field and a water source. CRP significantly improves the wildlife population. Hiller, Taylor, Lusk, Powell, and Tyre (2015) found that CRP positively increased the pheasant populations in Nebraska. Drum, Loesch, Carrison, Doherty, and Fedy (2015) documented increased support of waterfowl and specific migratory songbirds in land enrolled in CRP. In addition, the Leonte sparrow was found to be dependent on CRP land (Drum et al., 2015). Moreover, CRP improves on-site soil health, increasing crop yields, and reducing the cost of agricultural inputs while also increasing the cropland values by promoting the productivity (Johnson et al., 2016; Rao and Yang, 2010; and Wu and Lin, 2010). Water quality is improved in streams protected by riparian buffers (Bradburn, Aust, Dolloff, Cumbia, and Creighton, 2010). Gelfand et al. (2011) demonstrated that the Carbon (C) debt repayment associated with land coming out of CRP into conventional crop tillage was as high as 123 years. Carbon debt repayment was reduced through the use of no-till and avoided when the land was harvested for fuel production (Gelfand et al., 2011). Gelfand et al. (2011) recommended that government incentives be used to support the harvest of expired CRP land to reduce the impact on climate change associated with CRP land returning to production.
Landowners and farmers see challenges associated with CRP/CREP programs from being unable to use the land while they are under contract. Bradburn et al. (2010) found that some producers contributed to natural challenges preventing the establishment of riparian buffers on program enrolled land in their efforts to control weeds and improve the aesthetics of the buffers. Other negative practices included building roads and using the land for cattle grazing or wheat production (Bradburn et al., 2010). Natural regeneration following inadequate establishment resulted in the occurrence of ailanthus and autumn olive which are considered to be invasive species (Bradburn et al., 2010).
Gleason, Euliss, Tangen, Laubhan, and Browne (2011) suggested that producers will take one of the following actions when their contract expires: 1) re-enroll in the program, 2) leave the land in the conserved state but use it for grazing, hay production, or simply as it was used in the program, or 3) use the land for crop production. Gleason et al. (2011) cite sources that indicate that in some cases federal programs counteract each other with one program supporting conservation of cropland while the other supports conversion of grassland to cropland. They recommend the development of intended outcomes that can be used more effectively in evaluating program achievements as a means for federal program decisions (Gleason et al., 2011).
Access to previously protected land can be tricky. After the contract is over, fences may have to be taken down or moved for the land to be used again. The program provides environmental protection during the contract. However, once the contract is complete, there is nothing to provide continuing protection so the land may go back to its previous state over time and through neglect.
The CREP program restricts land use on riparian buffers to improve water quality and in some cases establish wildlife habitats (Aust, 2010). In Virginia, the majority of the land in the program is adjacent to land used for production agriculture, which brings with it many challenges. A review of previous literature identified program benefits to the environment and wildlife, but did not consider the perspective of the producers managing the enrolled land. Furthermore, there was little information regarding how the changes created by the program are managed after the contract expires.
The purpose of this qualitative research project was to identify the benefits and challenges of program participation from the perspective of the participant. The project explored the producer’s reasons for participation, the relationship between the participants and the program representatives, and identified ways to make the program more sustainable and valuable for farmers and landowners in the future. This insight could be useful for administrators of the program in identifying the challenges and benefits to the end-user in order to enhance program promotion or provide more effective program support.
This study focused on the CREP program in Virginia through a qualitative study of program participants. A qualitative study was chosen since this method is recommended to explore areas in which there is no previous knowledge (Creswell, 2013). This study is considered to be a phenomenological study (Creswell, 2013) The phenomenon being studied is the participant’s shared experience with the CREP program. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with 15 program participants spread evenly across the three NRCS districts in Virginia identified through purposive random sampling method. Purposeful sampling is used to identify participants that have a great deal of experience with the phenomenon being studied (Palinkas et al., 2015; Patton, 2015). In this case, participants were selected that had been enrolled in the program for a minimum of five years. The distribution of interviewees across the state was intended to increase the transferability of the study by including individuals with different experiences due to their location. The diversity of the crops produced across the state is great and was also represented using this sampling approach.
The sample for this study was selected from a pool of over two thousand CREP participants in the state of Virginia. Names and addresses were obtained from the state CREP office following USDA procedures for requesting this information. A random number generator was used to select individual participants. Inclusion criteria were used to select participants who had been enrolled in the program for at least five years. This criterion was established to include producers who had enough time in the program to have multiple experiences to draw upon in responding to the questions. The researchers contacted potential participants by phone to identify those that fit this criterion. Many of the program participants reached by phone were not interested in participating in the study or did not meet the inclusion criteria. Five program participants from each of three geographically-based NRCS districts in Virginia were identified who were willing to participate and fit the selection criteria. Researchers asked them if they might schedule an interview as approved by the Virginia Tech IRB (Protocol # 17-1057).
Interviews were conducted by phone and varied in length, but generally lasted less than thirty minutes. Each participant selected a pseudonym and provided verbal consent before the beginning of the interview. All interviews were recorded for verification of content and identified by the participant’s pseudonym. An IRB-approved semi-structured interview instrument was used to collect data based on the research objectives. Participants were also given the opportunity to add information they felt was important but not previously shared at the end of the interview.
After the phone interviews were conducted, the researchers used member checking, asking participants to review and revise the transcripts as necessary to clarify meaning. Data were coded by two researchers using codes obtained both a priori and emergent. Codes were then categorized. The primary categories of codes identified in the study included communication, producer needs, and program goals.
Data for the study was collected from fifteen participants of the CREP program from across the state of Virginia. All participants had been enrolled in the program for at least five years with the longest-held contract being fourteen years. Among the group, the amount of land in the program ranged from two acres to one hundred and ten acres. These farms all fall within the 76% of farms in Virginia with acreage below 180 acres (United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017). On average, the majority of participants had less than twenty acres enrolled in the program. Many of the participants raised beef cattle. Other commodities produced included corn, soybeans, tobacco, poultry, and timber. Participants included both a current and previous USDA program administrator.
The motivation to participate in the program varied amongst the participants. Eight of the landowners described themselves as being very environmentally conscious, feeling a responsibility to protect the water resources that flow through their property. Several had creeks that they deemed to be liabilities for their cattle or other operation. The primary reason for the participation of others was to get alternative water sources for their beef herds or benefit from the payments. One participant inherited the land that was enrolled. A participant identified as Tobacco Farmer said, “I am very environmentally conscious and do not want animals in live water, or want to at least limit access to those bodies of water.” He feels that being environmentally conscious helps him to be a better steward of his land.
Several questions in the semi-structured interview sought to explore whether there might be opportunities to improve communication-related to the program. Several organizations assist FSA in promoting this program. Six of the participants learned about the program through their local Soil and Water Conservation office, four through Natural Resources Conservation Service, four through word of mouth from other participants, and one from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Thirteen participants had contact with program administrators during their contract, while two noted that they did not have any communication after the contract was enacted. The majority of conversations took place over the phone or in person. Program logistics, such as a fence or water placement, were the primary topic for these conversations. One producer stated, “There was always someone back and forth from the office looking at the project. Eighty percent of the trees we planted died. I went back to them [program staff] suggesting we replant, but after talking with them decided not to for various reasons.”
The frequency of communication varied, although once the initial work on the project was complete most producers interacted with FSA on an annual basis. Others who communicated more frequently seemed to have closer ties to program staff. All participants felt the communication that they had was beneficial and sufficient. One producer experienced a change in program personnel during project implementation. He stated, “The first individual took on more than he could handle and made commitments that weren’t followed up with in the end. He said he did things that were not done. The second individual took care of everything and finished the project for me.”
There were no suggestions from the program participants for improved communications.
Each of the fifteen participants responded that the program fits their needs and fell within their current production plans. The general response from the participants was that the program required that they give up valuable land that they used for grazing or cropland. However, the participants were willing to make the tradeoff because they felt that the benefits outweighed this loss. One program participant noted,
"Yes, it definitely worked for us. It helped us get an alternative water source and improved wildlife habitat. As an outdoor enthusiast, it’s improved that part for me. It helped with the movement of cattle and the disposition of livestock because they are more used to people than they used to be because of being around them more. The health of the herd is better, less calf scours, less foot problems, and less pink-eye since we have fenced out the creeks."
Several participants had difficulties when they began the program either getting fences built, electric lines moved, or reconfiguring pasture land. Although, the majority of participants had no problems or interference. Angus Farmer, who is also an FSA program administrator added,
"Invasive species control has been a challenge to stay on top of. It’s always an issue with us and one that I see with my clients. Anything that can help to control, whether it is annual monitoring of which species that are coming into the CREP area, or actual control - where a company can come out and spray or cut out invasives. I think that would be helpful for my father and I, at least. We have not had a problem with any predators, but have seen more coyotes and a bald eagle. No issues with predators taking livestock though."
Once the new fences had been finished, participants identified a challenge in accessing land inside the program or having other plots of land that were land-locked. Other challenges included a gravity-fed waterer that malfunctioned and a participant who suffered penalties as a result of failing to include the program on his income taxes.
A few farmers did not have any challenges and everything ran smoothly. One producer said,
"I assumed that I was taking so much land out of production that I would have to cut back on cattle. This past year, I just now reached capacity of what I could do. By rotational grazing, I made it work and realized it did not interfere with production as much as thought."
Some of the farmers initially expected to have challenges that never materialized. They found the new plans they had for their farm actually provided long term benefits for them.
The consensus among the group was that the goals of the program were met in their project. Participants across the board felt that the number of wildlife had increased and water quality was improved. Survival of trees planted by the program was often a challenge. One participant stated that almost all of the trees planted during his project had died. Oliver, a participant, who has been a conservationist for many years stated,
"I think they [the goals] are all in process. We planted 900 trees. As they develop and create canopy there is a big change with sediment. When the canopy shades the stream, there will be a night and day shift in the quality of water. I want the native species to thrive, but I don’t want it to be overrun with plants that can choke out native species. It’s a bit of a challenge to keep the good species and allow them to grow."
All but one of the fifteen participants were aware that their land was inspected while under contract.
At this time, one of the fifteen participants has renewed his first contract, and one is not planning to renew the contract. The other thirteen participants have not completed their first contract but plan on renewing when the time comes. A majority of participants are happy with the program and feel that it is beneficial. The requirements are sufficient so that program goals are met. However, the requirements do not create hardship. Therefore, they are comfortable continuing their contracts.
Several participants took the opportunity during the interview to share other comments related to the program. Some shared that the program should only be advertised when funding is available. Participants feel that after the funding has been used up for the year, the program staff should no longer promote the program until closer to the next fiscal year. They felt that it was inappropriate to promote a program that could not begin until more funding was available.
One beef producer felt he put too much money into the maintenance of his project for the benefit he received. He stated,
"To be honest I think it cost me more than what it was worth. They paid for a well and they put in waterers. But last year the pump went out and it cost $1000 to replace the pump. More than what they paid in rent for the land we put back into the program."
Several participants struggled with putting up fences. One participant had struggles with the electric company, another with getting a well drilled. Several participants stated that the project took longer than expected. Others suggested the number of program participants was low due to farmer’s being cautious about participating in a federally funded program. One participant suggested reducing the size of the riparian buffers to appeal to more farmers who are concerned about losing valuable production land.
We identified several areas of interest through this study. We did have difficulty finding program participants to interview. However, those that met our criteria and agreed to the interview were very willing to share their feelings about the program and suggested possible program improvements.
All of the participants in our study felt the communication they had with the CREP program staff was beneficial to them and their projects. Most participants had frequent communication during their project and then had an annual contact after their project was completed. Participants feel that they get the right amount of support from program staff overall to allow them to implement the program. Most communication took place either face-to-face or by phone. Two participants mentioned having farm and office visits to communicate with program staff. Only one participant used email for communication.
Interview participants shared that involvement in the program resulted in changes in their daily work and production. At the same time, they felt that the requirements of the program were in line with their needs and those of the environment. They recognized that there was a trade-off between their previous management and management with the program, but felt that losing a little bit of land or adding a few fences to their property was justified to aid in conservation efforts in their role of being good stewards of the land.
One reason for this research was to determine if the goals of the CREP program are being met from the producer’s perspective. The goals of the program are to improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat, and to prevent soil erosion through the protection and rehabilitation of valuable land (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2016). Participants are happy with the conservation efforts of this program and strongly feel that the goals are either being met or will eventually be met on their land. The participants also recognized improvement in water quality in the riparian buffer zone.
While the majority of the program participants we spoke with are happy with the program and its effectiveness on their land, one common statement was that the program needs more funding. Several participants feel that they should receive more money each year to help pay for maintenance and fencing and to also compensate them for giving up their land. Participants also feel that the program is a strong one that needs more monetary support to draw in new participants. Stephenson, Aultman, Metcalfe, & Miller (2009) found that agricultural nonpoint source compensations, including the CREP program, may not be technically feasible or a particularly cost-effective compliance option for regulated point sources in Virginia because nonpoint sources face lower control costs than point sources, limited physical potential to meet future point source offset needs, and potentially high contracting costs and legal risks of permit violations in the event of nonpoint source noncompliance. Being able to visibly observe the effects of the efforts helped to solidify participant’s feelings about participating in the program for years to come. Participants in this study felt satisfied with the benefit-cost returns of the CREP.
Program advertising may be helpful to make producers aware that the program exists so they may participate in the future. However, once funding is gone, it may be helpful to note in communications that funds have already been dispersed for the year and indicate when funds may be available again. It may also be beneficial for program administrators to discuss dispersing funds at a particular time of the year and therefore only have applications open for some time beforehand. This approach may allow advertising to continue, but people will know that they need to get applications during the period, and they can only be funded during the disbursement period. One participant in our study suggested that planned management strategies should be adopted to encourage the growth of native species. He was concerned about the overgrowth of plantings shading some native species.
As a result of this study, we were unable to determine whether or not program requirements will be maintained after the contract expires since those interviewed intended to renew their contracts once the current contract expires. We recommend that future research be conducted to identify changes that producers feel they will need to make in order to maintain program requirements. For example, one producer in the current study mentioned the need to move fences to access pasture once the contract expires. Are there ways this could be done to meet his needs without sacrificing the intent of the program? Perhaps challenges such as this could be prevented by working with producers to prevent them from needing to make changes that may limit the long-term benefits of the program.
Communication between the CREP program staff and participants appears to be working well in terms of methods and frequency of communication. Contact was by phone or in person. It may be useful to explore electronic communication methods as younger farmers enter the program and rural broadband access continues to improve.
All of the participants of the CREP program felt that the implemented program was meeting their needs. This program has resulted in changes in their daily operations. However, the participants felt the changes were beneficial and justified because of the improvement they saw in the environment.
The interview participants also felt that the goals of the program were met. These include increasing water quality, increasing wildlife habitat, and reducing soil erosion. Based on this project, the CREP program appears to be a beneficial program that is balancing the needs of the producer and the environment. The primary limitation of the program is funding. These recommendations were made by the program participants through the study.
- Incorporate an annual monitoring system to control invasive species.
- Develop plans to reduce the mortality of the trees planted through the program.
- Be consistent in inspecting the land during the contract.
- Advertise the program only when funding is available.
- Reduce the riparian buffer zone to attract more farmers concerned about losing cultivable land.
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