DROUGHT conditions this summer in Arkansas and Mississippi caused harvested rice farms to re-head, creating "ratoon" or second-growth, crops that are often not economical to harvest.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided to view these ratoon crops that have been rolled as baited fields, even though this practice was recommended by local cooperative extension services as a way to return nutrients to the soil. Inadvertent baiting of a field can result in a fine of up to $15,000 or prohibit hunting on the land.
Legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and House to prevent FWS from unfairly penalizing farmers for rolling their fields during hunting season.
Sens. Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), John Boozman (R., Ark.), Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) and Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) introduced the Farmers Protection Act of 2012, which would allow each state's cooperative extension service to distinguish between normal agricultural practices and baiting. Rep. Rick Crawford (R., Ark.) introduced companion legislation in the House.
Pryor noted that hunting is a "huge driver of economic activity in Arkansas" and said the bill helps to resolve the issue and ensure that hunting season continues undeterred.
"Our farmers and hunters are great stewards of the land and wildlife. Farmers should not have to live under the threat of penalty for engaging in common and recommended agricultural practices," Boozman said. "Allowing state cooperative extension services to determine what is and is not a common practice is not just good policy; it's common sense."
Cochran said this situation is a case of federal agencies working at cross purposes, leaving farmers and hunters in a bind.
"Many Mississippi landowners traditionally lease farmland to sportsmen after the land has been harvested, but some of these leases have had to be returned because of Fish & Wildlife Service requirements, costing farmers and sportsmen," Wicker noted. "Under this bill, states would define normal agricultural practices, ensuring that local farming methods can continue as they have for generations. Rice, soybean and other producers should be able to manage their fields without the threat of losing valuable hunting rights."