Legal battle erupts over grazing and hay harvesting


July 20, 2008|By TED SHELSBY

In a decision that could affect Maryland farmers down the road, a federal judge in Seattle recently issued a temporary injunction that halts cattle grazing and the harvesting of hay from land in a federal conservation program.

The legal battle stems from a decision by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer in May to allow cattle and other livestock to graze on 24 million acres of land enrolled in the government's Conservation Reserve Program. He also allowed grass on the land to be harvested as hay.

Commonly referred to by agriculture officials and farmers as CRP, the federal program started in 1985 allows landowners to idle environmentally sensitive land for conservation.

Schafer's move was designed to help livestock farmers suffering from high crop prices and tight food supplies. The average price of hay has jumped nearly 23 percent this year to $161 a ton, according the USDA's crop reporting service. Hay prices have more than doubled in the past three years.

Prices of other crops, including corn and soybeans, have also advanced to record or near-record levels in recent months.

The higher prices are blamed on the increased use of corn to produce ethanol as a gasoline extender, and widespread flooding in the Midwest. Pork farmers are complaining that the high cost of feed is resulting in a loss on each pig going to market.

Schafer said his decision would make available up to 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion.

The secretary stipulated that the eligible land may not be hayed or grazed until after the end of the primary nesting season for grass nesting birds.

The move was applauded by the beef, poultry, pork, grain and feed industry as a positive step addressing their needs.

Federal District Court Judge John C. Coughenour's recent decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in Washington state, charging that the USDA's action jeopardized certain birds. They sought a larger environmental impact study before changing the use of the land.

According to Kerry Humphrey, a representative for the USDA, there are 83,438 acres of Maryland farmland on 3,574 farms, enrolled in the CRP program.

"Maryland farmers will not be affected by the program until after Aug. 15," Humphrey said. "The bird nesting season there goes from April 15 to Aug. 15. Farmers can sign up for the program now, but they will need to wait until the end of the bird nesting season."

Nationwide, landowners received about $1.9 billion in CRP payments last year. The program pays a national average of about $50 an acre.

In a related development, Schafer announced last week that the government would allow livestock to graze on thousands of CRP acres in 16 states because of flooding.

The release permits grazing only in counties recently designated as Presidential Disaster Areas, or contiguous counties.

"We have a crisis situation in the Midwest and other parts of the country that calls for drastic action," Schafer said.

"Major flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries came at one of the worst times for agriculture," he said. "Flood waters inundated thousands of acres that cannot be salvaged for production this growing season, and it happened at a time of record crop, food and fuel prices.

"Our CRP land is vital to the balance we promote at USDA between production and preservation. I commit this resource, knowing that we must redouble our conservation efforts at every future opportunity."

In Maryland, the order applies only to farms in Washington County.

To be approved, CRP participants must write their county Farm Service Agency office and obtain a modified conservation plan. They need approval before grazing is permitted.

Participants will also experience a 25 percent reduction in their CRP rental payments.

The vast majority of the land included in this program is in Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska and Illinois. These are major Corn Belt states that suffered the greatest from severe flooding this spring.

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