LITTLE ROCK – After three years with floods, Arkansas farmers are looking at alternatives to striking out on flood-prone cropland.

Farmers have lost crops on just few acres up to hundreds of acres because of record rains during the last three years. According to David Long, private lands coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, farmers are finding they have two USDA programs available to them.

"Farmers can retire these regularly flooded croplands and receive income and incentives to transition to a new land use that can restore premium wildlife habitat on the farm," Long said. "From ducks to deer to rabbits to an assortment of non-game wildlife can benefit from habitat restoration of these acres using USDA programs."

Financial assistance is available through the Farm Service Agency’s Continuous Conservation Reserve Program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetland Reserve Program, Long says.

"These two programs offer the highest financial incentives to farm producers to assist in transitioning croplands to a different land use," Long said. "These programs offer significant financial support to retire and establish wildlife habitat on the farm to include yearly rental payments, easement land payments, restoration cost paid and/or other financial incentives to assist farmers in converting these annually flooded croplands to premium wildlife habitat."

The NRCS recently increased its WRP easement payments, which should prove even more attractive to farmers looking for alternatives to farming problem croplands. In most of the Mississippi Delta of Arkansas, easement payments are $1,350 per acre on cropland, pastureland and commercial fish ponds. For woodlands and other land, the easement payment is $800 per acre. For the Arkansas River Valley (Franklin, Perry, Yell, Conway, Johnson, Logan, Sebastian, Pope, Faulkner and Crawford counties), cropland, pastureland and commercial fish ponds, the easement payment is $1,500 per acre.

These are one-time payments in exchange for a perpetual conservation easement under the WRP. NRCS pays 100 percent of the wetland restoration cost. Farmers have enrolled more than 215,000 acres into the program.

The Farm Service Agency’s Continuous Conservation Reserve Program can target flood-prone croplands, which offers significant incentives to farmers to place these croplands in good conservation and wildlife cover, Long said. "Incentives may include yearly rental payments up to 15 years, $100 per-acre, up-front signing incentive payment and a 50 percent cost-share payment for establishing the practice, coupled with a 40 percent practice incentive payment. Most CCRP practices pay an additional 20 percent on the rental payment to increase yearly payments even higher," Long said.

As of December 2010, Arkansas farmers on 2,202 farms enrolled 125,664 acres in CCRP practices, with an average yearly rental payment of $70.82 per acre. In March, FSA increased the soil rental rates in a number of counties across the state, so increased income from CRP payments may be possible in some counties.

After assessing annual risks and income losses on these croplands for several years now, farmers are finding CCRP income is looking better and better," Long said. "The saying ’farm less and earn more’ by using the CCRP is ringing true for more and more farmers."

CCRP practices for whole crop fields include CP23-Wetland Restoration and CP31-Bottomland Timber Establishment on Wetlands. For croplands outside of the 100-year floodplain, which includes lands currently flooded, CP23A-Wetland Restoration, Non-floodplain, is available. Eligible row-crop lands must have a cropping history of four out of six years between 2002 and 2008.

According to Long, the two programs offer the farm producer a way out of farming acres that lose a crop from annual flooding and other weather-related or production-oriented problems.

"These programs can create wildlife habitat on the farm, along with providing supplemental farm income from yearly conservation rental payments, easement payments and special incentive payments," Long said. "With the right conservation plan design to establish premium wildlife habitat conditions, future alternative farm income through leasing the hunting rights can also be achieved, or can provide new hunting and recreational opportunities for farm families and friends."

What’s a farmer to do? Become educated about these programs by talking to county FSA or NRCS office personnel or contacting an AGFC private lands biologist: Brinkley, 877-734-4581; Monticello, 877-367-3559; Mayflower, 877-470-3650; Jonesboro, 877-972-5438; Calico Rock, 877-297-4331; Russellville, 877-967-7577; Fort Smith, 877-478-1043; Hope, 877-777-5580; Camden, 877-836-4512, and Fayetteville, 866-253-2506. Long may be reached at 877-972-5438.