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March 26, 2015

The Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has helped preserve land and strengthened the agricultural ecosystem for over 60 years.  In return for yearly payments, “sensitive” land registered under the CRP is removed from agricultural production to prevent soil erosion, increase water quality, and reduce the loss of wildlife.  This article provides a brief description of CRP and helps illustrate how Title II of the 2014 Agricultural Act impacts the program.

Summary of CRP

Once farmers enroll land in CRP, they agree to remove it from agricultural production and to plant species of crop that will improve the overall quality and health of the environment. A contract for land enrolled in CRP lasts for 10-15 years in return for annual payments, along with cost-sharing and other incentives provided by the FSA.

Title II Effects

With the passage of the 2014 Agricultural Act came changes to existing conservation programs under the Conservation Title (Title II) of the Act.   Title II, among other things, focuses conservation programs into four primary areas:

    Retirement of environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production,

    Enhancements on working lands,

    The purchase of easements to protect natural resources and nature of land, and

    Partnerships to address regional issues of the environment.

Funding has historically been focused on the first two programs, but is being extended to the last two.  Along with changes in funding, the maximum allowable acres in CRP is being reduced, which could reflect the net movement of land out of CRP due to the high returns on crop production since 2006.  To address the continued use of CRP while crop prices are high, the switch to an increased emphasis on the purchasing of easements is following a trend of Congress to favor working land conservation over land retirement.

Big Picture Spending of Conservation Programs

With the new bill being passed, it is estimated that spending on Title II Conservation programs will total $57.6 billion between the years 2014-2023, which is an estimated $4 billion less than the cost of an extension of existing programs and their baseline spending.  Spending is going to be reduced $.2 billion for the years 2014-2018, suggesting that spending cuts will be heavy in the last five years.  This reflects the progressively large reductions in the acres enrolled in CRP.

Title II in Relation to CRP

Title II will make some key changes to CRP over the coming years.  Along with reauthorizing CRP through 2018, Title II will reduce the maximum acres allowed in CRP from the current 32 million to 27.5 million in 2014, 26 million in 2015, 25 million in 2016, and 24 million in 2018.  This significant reduction of 8 million acres could be explained by the high crop productions that are being experienced.

Notably, grasslands will be added to the list of eligible lands (provided that grazing is the dominant use, the area is historically dominated by grasslands, and the land could provide habitat for animal and plant populations of significant ecological value).  There is also a cap applied to the CRP for grassland enrollment at 2 million acres during the years 2014-2018, giving expiring CRP acres priority for enrollment as grassland contacts.  Under specified conditions, there will be various activities allowed on enrolled grasslands, such as grazing and harvesting, and fire suppression.  Title II also permits certain activities on grasslands under stated exemptions, such as emergency harvesting and grazing, grazing by a beginning farmer or rancher, and activities necessary to construct and operate wind turbines or to control invasive species.

Process of Enrolling in CRP

Enrollment is through the FSA office in the county in which the land resides.  Several steps must be taken for enrolling land in CRP.

Farmers must determine whether their land is eligible to be enrolled in the program.  To be eligible, the farmer must have owned or operated the land for at least twelve months prior to submitting its offer of enrollment.  Exceptions are made for land acquired due to the death of the previous owner or due to a foreclosure or land that was purchased without sole intention of enrolling the land in CRP.

Once the land is eligible for the program, it can be enrolled in one of two ways.  The first way is through a competitive process that is known as the CRP General Sign-up.  The second method is through the CRP Continuous Sign-up.

General CRP Sign-up only occurs when the Secretary of Agriculture announces that the USDA will accept bids for enrollment.  General Sign-up is competitive and offers are ranked against each other on a national level.  Rankings are based primarily on the environmental benefits that will result from each proposed conservation practice that will be assigned and put into place on each property.  The FSA will then assign each offer an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), based on the sensitivity of the land and the type of conservation practice that the owner wishes to utilize, which is then used to rank the offers against each other.  The EBI factors are:  benefits to wildlife habitat, benefits to water quality, benefits to the farm itself from reduced erosion, benefits to air quality, benefits that will last beyond the contract period, and cost (both of annual rental payments and cost-share to establish the desired conservation practice upon the land).

The Continuous CRP Sign-up is focused on protecting environmentally sensitive land and differs from the General CRP Sign-up in that offers made are not ranked against each other and sign-up can occur at any time.  Environmentally sensitive land may include; agricultural land that is exposed to higher chances of erosion, pastures or agricultural lands that have borders along river or stream banks, or field margins. Different types of conservation practices that the owner wishes to utilize may also be taken into consideration by the FSA.  Accepted conservation practices include: buffers for wildlife habitat, wetlands buffer, riparian buffer, wetland restoration, filter strips, grass waterways, shelter belts, living snow fences, contour grass strips, salt tolerant vegetation, and shallow water areas for wildlife.
For more information on the CRP, see the USDA’s website at http://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/index.

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