- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - At the peak of the wheat bubble, Montana farmers looking for more land to seed were pulling roughly 200,000 acres a year from conservation.

The number of Montana acres set aside to control erosion or create wildlife habitat slid from 3.5 million acres in 2007 to 1.7 million acres in 2014, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now grain prices are declining to the lowest point in eight years. Congressmen and women from agriculture states are asking the USDA to help farmers get back into one of the nation’s largest private lands conservation programs.

The list of lawmakers asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to maximize CRP acres included Montana Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, and Democrat Jon Tester.

As elevators began to pop up in farm communities like Chester and Kintyre along the Montana Hi-Line, towns’ cooperatives buzzed with speculation about where the wheat would come from to satisfy these new facilities, particularly in Chester, which suddenly had two.

Farmer Gordon Stoner, of Outlook, looked at the high concentration of CRP acres in the counties neighboring the new elevators and concluded that’s where the grain would come from, the Billings Gazette reported (https://tinyurl.com/mcuhx3q).

Now with prices on decline, Stoner is not sure whether he’s ready to re-enroll, but he’s sure farmers will be thinking about it. Winter wheat prices are in the $4-a-bushel range after being valued twice that just a couple years ago. At $4 or $5 a bushel, some farmers won’t turn a profit, he said. For those who can make a buck, CRP may be attractive again.

But wheat isn’t the only crop Montana farmers plant anymore, as it once was, said Charlie Bumgarner, who farms in Central Montana. Farming practices have improved to the point that it’s possible to manage erosion and still farm, which is what Bumgarner plans to do.

“I don’t know anyone who has put ground back into CRP. My uncle was going to, but then my cousin said ‘that ground isn’t going back into CR,’ ” Bumgarner said.

Currently, the federal limit on CRP acres is 26 million nationally, and there are 24 million acres enrolled.

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, https://www.billingsgazette.com

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