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Breaking out new and improving existing working lands

As the demand for more food continues to rise, so does the need for working ground; whether it be by clearing ground to start farming it or maintaining and improving existing cropland.

There are a couple things to think about before clearing new or improving current farmland — Highly Erodible Land Compliance and Wetland Compliance. Compliance with these two areas became a requirement with the 1985 Farm Bill’s Swampbuster/Sodbuster Policy.

Highly Erodible Land (HEL) determinations are made when new land is cleared and brought into production or if there is a tract split or combination. A field is determined to be HEL when at least a third of the acres or 50 acres are classified as highly erodible soil units. If you have ground that is determined to be HEL, it is encouraged that you work with NRCS to develop a conservation plan. This will let you know what tillage and how much tillage the soils on your farm can handle, so that you remain eligible for FSA’s farm program benefits and crop insurance.

Certified wetland determinations are made when land is cleared for production or if there are planned activities to improve drainage on ground that is or will be farmed. Such activities include, but are not limited to, installing new tile or creating a new drainage ditch. It is highly encouraged you have this determination in hand before beginning any work.

Manipulating wetlands can result in significant penalties from FSA for violating the Swampbuster provision of the Farm Bill. Most determinations completed prior to July 3, 1996, are NOT considered certified, making them invalid for use in determining compliance with Farm Bill provisions.

To request these determinations, you begin at FSA by completing its AD-1026 form. They will then refer the form to NRCS for our evaluation. I encourage you to fill the form out well in advance of when you plan to do any work. There was a time when you could call the week before the tiling contractor would be moving onto your farm. Unfortunately those days are gone.

When you receive your wetland determination, it will most likely contain one or more of the following terms — Prior Converted (PC), Non-wetland (NW), Farmed Wetland (FW), or Wetland (W). What do they mean for you?

PC and NW means the area does not have any wetlands, and you may proceed with your planned activity. FW means that an area still contains wetland signatures and hydrology, even if there is tile through it. You can maintain any drainage systems that are existing only. No additional tile lines can be installed. Maintain means you can replace like for like- same depth, same capacity, same outlet, at the same elevation. W means you have a wetland. FW and W designated areas will be drawn out so that you know where they are and can avoid them. Manipulation of an FW or W is what can result in fines from FSA for violation of the Farm Bill.

If you have any questions about areas on your farm or about a determination you receive, please stop by our office. We are happy to explain what you may have going on so that you do not find yourself facing fines and being in violation of the law. We would prefer you not find yourself in that predicament as well.

Erika Luft is the district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Princeton Field Office.

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