The 2008 farm bill includes significant changes that offer a higher cost of return to Mid-South farmers and landowners.

Under the new farm bill, the rates for entering into the Wetlands Reserve Program have climbed substantially. The WRP is a voluntary program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property.

“If you have previously considered enrolling your land in WRP, I encourage you to give it a second look,” said State Conservationist Kevin Brown of Tennessee. “Rates are currently being set for every county, and they are significantly higher than they were just a few weeks ago.”

The WRP and other farm bill conservation programs are administered through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

WRP helps landowners restore wetlands with the goal of maximizing wildlife benefits and recovering lost wetland functions and values.

The program offers farmers an opportunity to be reimbursed for retiring from agriculture those lands that are marginally productive due to wetness. Applications are ranked with the highest ranking applications receiving funding first.

Eligible lands include those that are privately owned; state, county, or non-federal publicly-owned; or tribal lands.

Brown said NRCS in Tennessee has a goal of enrolling 4,000 new acres into the Wetlands Reserve Program by September. Goals in other states may vary.

There is currently no backlog of applications in Tennessee, so the sooner applicants get their paperwork into NRCS, the sooner their applications can be reviewed and ranked.

WRP offers landowners three options: permanent easements, 30-year easements, and restoration agreements. The program pays for 100 percent of the restoration costs for permanent easements and 75 percent for 30-year easements and restoration agreements.

After an agreement has been reached, the landowner continues to control access to the land — and may use or lease the land for hunting, fishing, and other undeveloped recreational activities.

At any time, a landowner may request that additional activities be evaluated to determine if they are compatible uses for the site.

This request may include such items as permission to cut hay, graze livestock, or harvest wood products. Compatible uses are allowed if they are fully consistent with the protection and enhancement of the wetland.

Sign-up information for WRP is available at local NRCS offices and conservation district offices in each county, and at specific state NRCS Web sites: http://www.tn.nrcs.usda.gov in Tennessee; http://www.ms.nrcs.usda.gov in Mississippi; http://www.mo.nrcs.usda.gov in Missouri; http://www.ar.nrcs.usda.gov in Arkansas, and http://www.la.nrcs.usda.gov in Louisiana. Look under Programs.