Not all of those who show up on the Environmental Working Group’s almost annual list of farm program benefit recipients are farmers and not all receive farm program payments. Take Ducks Unlimited, for example.
“Ducks Unlimited typically ranks high on the Environmental Working Group Web site for receiving millions of farm bill dollars,” the Memphis, Tenn.-based organization said in a press release.
“However, these payments to DU are not subsidies. They are reimbursements for on-the-ground wetland restoration projects DU conducts mostly through the Wetlands Reserve Program,” one of a number of conservation programs conducted by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The DU release said some people erroneously believe that payments the organization receives takes money away from deserving farmers. In fact, DU is reimbursed for work it does for farmers who choose to have DU’s wetlands experts handle the restoration component for their Wetlands Reserve Program contract.
“Each year, we have to do some explaining in coffee shops and along fencerows in rural America, especially in southern states like Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” said Curtis Hopkins, who oversees DU’s conservation work throughout the South.
“Once we explain we’re getting reimbursed for work that farmers in the Wetlands Reserve Program have hired us to do, they quickly understand that it’s not a subsidy payment, and we’re certainly not getting money that should be going to farmers.”
Hopkins said DU’s role as a Wetlands Reserve Program technical assistance provider often helps farmers get their wetland restoration done faster than if they tried to do the project work on their own, because DU pays for the initial restoration on the landowner’s behalf.
Once the restoration plan is approved by the NRCS, DU solicits bids from local contractors, organizes the work to restore and reforest the wetlands, and pays for the overall restoration. The government then reimburses DU after the work is completed. In the meantime, the landowner has already been paid for the conservation easement on the property by the NRCS.
“Ducks Unlimited helps farmers with wetlands restoration work, which is what we do best and that allows farmers to concentrate on farming,” Hopkins said. “It’s a win-win for all involved, including hundreds of wildlife species that use these newly created wetlands. For DU not to be involved in restoring these wetland habitats would be to neglect our core mission.”
Enacted in the 1996 farm bill, the Wetlands Reserve Program is administered by the NRCS and annually restores or protects up to 250,000 acres of marginal agricultural lands on farms and ranches nationwide.
“Another great part of this program is that it allows many farmers to retain ownership of property they might otherwise lose,” added Hopkins. “These landowners have ties to the land and Ducks Unlimited, and the Wetlands Reserve Program help them improve their property for wildlife and keep it in the family.”
During the past five years, DU restored 112,488 acres involving 586 private landowners in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. DU also provides assistance and receives minor payments for its role in the Conservation Reserve Program.