NESS CITY — In his third stop of the day on his listening tour, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., heard how some residents think the federal Conservation Reserve Program has been detrimental to the Ness County economy.

Questioning what can be expected in the next farm bill, Gary Gantz, farmer and owner of DE Bondurant Grain Co., explained to the congressman that when all of Ness County was designated in 2003 as critical wildlife habitat, it opened all land — not just highly erodible land — to be enrolled in CRP.

The CRP is intended to enhance environmentally sensitive lands. Agriculture producers voluntarily enroll qualified land and plant it with native vegetation to control erosion and enhance wildlife habitat in exchange for payment from the government. The enrollment lasts 10 to 15 years.

A small population of prairie chickens — whose population is declining — prompted the federal government’s declaration for Ness County 15 years ago.

“Within a couple of years, this county put 68,000 acres in CRP on top of what was already there. It caused a major shift in both business and workers that were in the county,” Gantz said.

As of October 2016, 93,966 Ness County acres were enrolled in CRP, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, second in Kansas only to Hamilton County.

According to the National Grain and Feed Association, that amounts to 22 percent of the county’s cropland. While the CRP payments to farmers contributed $4 million to the local economy that year, an acre of wheat in 2015 had the potential to generate $455 of economic activity, the association said in a report.

Additionally, the NGFA report said, less than 2,000 of Ness County’s CRP acres are being preserved with practices specific to water and soil quality improvement, meaning more than 90,000 acres are simply left idle.

The NGFA report stated CRP rental rates — approximately $40 an acre — are often higher than local cash rental rates. Landowners, the report stated, find if more personally profitable to put land in CRP than to rent it to farmers.

A woman in the audience at Marshall’s town hall said that is making it harder for younger farmers to get started.

“There’s so much CRP, it’s hard for a young farmer to rent ground,” she said.

“There’s youngsters out there that would like to have farm ground, and it’s simply not available. Why? Because we’re raising grass,” Gantz said.

Marshall said he doesn’t expect much change in the CRP funding from the last farm bill.

“Long story being short, I don’t think we’re going to be spending any more money on CRP than the last one,” he said.

Marshall also spoke about efforts to help President Donald Trump understand the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement to agriculture. Marshall said he had a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence a few weeks ago in which they discussed the trade agreement.

“The good news is, he said the president is getting it,” Marshall said.

“The president is very upset with NAFTA. He thinks it took away manufacturing jobs,” he said.

Pence, formerly governor of Indiana, has an understanding of agriculture, Marshall said, and has been discussing NAFTA and agriculture with the president.

“He understands how important agriculture is,” Marshall said of the president.

Marshall’s listening tour continues in northwest Kansas on Friday with the stops at 12:30 p.m. at the Osborne VFW and at 3:30 p.m. at 409 Main, Stockton.