USDA ramps up support for prairie strips

By Dan Looker

ANKENY, Iowa (IAWA) – The USDA offers a cornucopia of conservation programs through its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) – but using them for planting prairie strips has been complicated and sometimes difficult for farmers.

The FSA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) started in the 1980s to take whole fields of erodible cropland out of production and plant them with native grasses or trees. Farmers signed 10- or 15-year contracts in return for annual rental payments.  Later, smaller CRP practices could be used for pollinator flowers or wildlife.

But the rules for those programs sometimes “were not as cohesive with production agriculture,” said Curt Goettsch, who runs the CRP program for the Iowa FSA. For example, many CRP practices, such as those designed for wildlife habitat, didn’t allow the use of farm machinery.

The 2018 Farm Bill established a new CRP practice just for prairie strips – CP43. It was designed with input from the Iowa State University STRIPS research team, Goettsch said. CP43 allows farmers to turn machinery around on prairie strips if they’re planted alongside the edge of a field.

This practice pays farmers annual rent of up to $300 per acre, plus half of the cost of planting the prairie strips, up to $500 per acre.

Farmers could start signing up for CP43 in 2020 and by March of this year, 18,195 acres of prairie strips had been planted nationally, with 5,426 acres in Iowa. It may not sound like much, but roughly 10 times that amount of cropland is protected.

NRCS doesn’t have a separate practice for prairie strips, but in Iowa it has combined two practices under its Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP) to make them more attractive for farmers and landowners. Farmers can use the Conservation Cover (practice 327) and Upland Wildlife Habitat (practice 645) management practices over a five-year contract.

In 2022 one landowner used EQIP for 5 acres of prairie strip. This year, five contracts were signed, covering 20 acres.

“We increased quite a bit over last year, but still have some room to improve on the number of prairie strip applications across the state,” said Iowa NRCS spokesman Jason Johnson.

IAWA Executive Director Sean McMahon is pleased to see more support from USDA for the “remarkable benefits” of prairie strips.

“It has been very encouraging to see the tremendous progress that the Farm Services Agency has made since the 2018 Farm Bill in scaling up adoption of prairie strips nationally through CRP,” McMahon said. “Unfortunately, NRCS has yet to establish a stand-alone practice standard for prairie strips under EQIP, so it’s not possible to track the acres of prairie strip through that program.”

However, he added that the Iowa NRCS’s use of both Conservation Cover and Upland Wildlife Habitat do provide competitive cost share rates for prairie strips.