“When the program came along, it fit my land like a glove,” Branning told persons attending a ceremony at his farm near Onward. The ceremony marked the restoration of the 100,000th acre of Mississippi wetlands.
Branning was able to enroll 3,500 acres in the program and plant trees on 2,200 acres under the Wetlands Reserve Program, which was authorized in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990. In the 10 years since, Mississippi farmers have enrolled 103,000 acres in the WRP.
“Structures have been installed to hold water, and it’s an excellent habitat for ducks and other migratory birds,” said Branning, who continues to farm other land in the south Delta of Mississippi.
“Through the wetlands reserve, I have been able to plant this land to trees and will be able to pay off my land,” he noted. “It was difficult for me to meet the payments when I was trying to farm it due to flooding.”
The 103,000 acres enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve puts Mississippi in second place nationally in WRP enrollment.
“Mississippi may be second in the nation in WRP enrollment, but it is definitely first in the quality of assistance the NRCS is providing to its landowners,” said Pearlie S. Reed, Natural Resources Conservation Service chief, and keynote speaker for the ceremony.
Reed, a native of Mississippi, said that, besides helping stem the tide of wetlands losses, the Wetlands Reserve Program has brought “tangible economic and environmental benefits to rural communities outdoor enthusiasts, landowners and family farmers nationwide” by restoring drained property to its original wetlands condition.
“As a result, wildlife habitats have been created, flooding will be reduced, groundwater quality has improved and family farmers have been able to relieve themselves of the burden of unproductive cropland,” he said.
“Entire communities have benefited economically from these and other impacts, including increased opportunities for outdoor recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and bird watching.”
The 150 persons attending the ceremony were told that one success story credited to the Wetlands Reserve Program is that bald eagles are nesting on land that has been restored to wetlands in Warren County, just south of Sharkey County.
Homer L. Wilkes, state conservationist for the USDA NRCS, said credit for reaching the 100,000-acre restoration milestone was due to the efforts of landowners, government agencies supporting organizations, both local and national, and others who care about improving Mississippi’s natural resources.
He said that the federal government has invested $73.5 million in the WRP, not including technical assistance from Natural Resources Conservation Service specialists.
Farmland eligible for the Wetlands Reserve includes wetlands that were converted to farmland prior to 1986, adjacent functionally related lands and riparian areas that link wetlands.
Participants in the program must agree to long-term easements on the enrolled land and implement a wetland restoration plan of operations providing for the restoration and protection of the functional values of the wetland. They must also agree to the permanent retirement of any existing crop acreage base and allotment history.
Organizations serving as hosts for the ceremony included the USDA NRCS, Ducks Unlimited, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delta Council, Delta Wildlife, Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission and the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation.