Minnesota officials seek cropland for conservation project

Published 7:06 am Tuesday, July 10, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota officials are working to sign up more landowners under a new program that pays farmers to permanently set aside farmland for conservation to improve water quality.

The federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which launched last year in Minnesota, enrolls farm owners for 15 years, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. Farmers in the program are also signed up for the state’s Reinvest in Minnesota program agreeing to a permanent easement, a legal document stipulating the land must always be managed for conservation.

“From a public investment standpoint, this is a one-time investment and we receive those water quality and habitat benefits forever,” said Dave Weirens, assistant director for programs and policy at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

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The enhancement program aims to restore and preserve 60,000 acres (24,300 hectares), or roughly 90 square miles (233 square kilometers) of land across 54 counties in the western and southern parts of the state. The programs come as the state is in jeopardy of losing 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of grassland over the next five years.

It’s critical to preserve land permanently to maximize water quality protection, said Aaron Larsen, a program manager for the West Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District.

Rob and Loreli Westby are among those who’ve shifted some land to conservation and were the first to sign an easement.

“We both believe in conservation and it will be perpetually protected when we’re no longer around and other people can enjoy it,” Rob Westby said of the restored wetland that’s been in his wife’s family for years.

The Westbys will receive annual payments for 15 years for taking the farmland out of production. They’ll also receive a one-time payment from the state. The couple’s payments are determined through a formula that combines federal and state dollars that’ll equal 90 percent of the average per acre land value.