By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

When Farm Service Agency offices across Kansas open their doors Monday for farmers to offer up land for the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program, it might look a wee bit like the proverbial Maytag repairman -- lonely.

High crop prices and starkly higher land lease and rent rates might convince some farmers to eschew a program that has otherwise been one of the more popular farm programs.

With wheat prices at more than $7 a bushel, corn topping $6 a bushel and soybeans in excess of $12 a bushel, it's going to be a tough call for farmers to take land out of production and plant it to grass.

In fact, said Matt Smith, the farm bill coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, there's even been some interest by farmers in breaking out native stands of grass and turning it into cropland.

"I'm talking about grass that's never been broken out," Smith said.

Smith declined to identify where that request has been made, but he did say it was from the eastern part of the state.

"It's not only crop prices, but it's also rental rates that may be a problem," he said.

With land lease prices topping $100 an acre per year, it might be difficult for landowners to enroll in a program that doesn't pay quite as much.

Average CRP rates, Smith said, are about $38 an acre.

Enrollment in the general CRP program is set to begin Monday at Farm Service Agency offices across the nation. Enrollment continues through April 15. Contracts covering land enrolled in the program will take effect Oct. 1.

Across the state, contracts covering more than 500,000 acres of land already in the program are expected to expire. In northwest Kansas, contracts covering about 81,000 acres are set to expire.

Northwest Kansas landowners have almost 650,000 acres of land in the program. Across Kansas, the total is about 3.3 million acres.

Although enrollment in the program late last year was good, the prices weren't as high as they've been in recent years.

"I think there's still a lot of interest in the program," Smith said of CRP. "There's still a lot of highly erodible acres."

In the last signup, for example, farmers enrolled about 220,000 new acres of land in the program, Smith said. That's out of about 614,000 acres that were accepted into the program. Another 4 million acres of land is expected to be accepted into the program this time around, if the response is there.

Taking highly erodible land out of production and returning it to grass was the original goal of the program. But along the way, CRP was adopted by wildlife advocates who realized that its benefits extend far beyond farming.

Recently, a series of CRP efforts have been directed specifically at lesser prairie chickens, a bird that is on the verge of being put on the endangered species list.

Despite that, the programs have languished somewhat as crop prices have jumped up.

In one program, out of 30,000 acres that can be enrolled, only about 7,500 has been offered.

Smith said it has struggled because the offerings came right on the heels of the general and much larger enrollment last year. He thinks farm agency employees have been so busy dealing with the larger program that they've not yet been able to promote other enrollment plans.