Enrollment for grasslands in USDA's CRP opens soon

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, July 15, 2015 - The Agriculture Department announced Wednesday that farmers and ranchers interested in enrolling their working grasslands in the voluntary Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) may submit their applications starting Sept. 1.

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“(CRP) has been one of the most successful conservation programs in the history of the country, and we are pleased to begin these grasslands incentives as we celebrate the program's 30th year,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “This is another great example of how agricultural production can work hand in hand with efforts to improve the environment and increase wildlife habitat.”

According to USDA, a record 400 million acres and 600,000 producers and landowners are currently enrolled in the department's conservation programs. The CRP-Grasslands program, created by the 2014 Farm Bill, is administered by the USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) and provides enrollees with annual rental payments of up to 75 percent of their lands' grazing value.

To participate, farmers and ranchers must agree to use long-term conservation practices on their grasslands, such as cross fencing to support rotational grazing or improving pasture cover to benefit pollinators or other wildlife. Up to 50 percent of the cost for employing these conservation “covers” can be paid by federal cost share funds.

Participants may still conduct common grazing practices, produce hay, mow, or harvest for seed production, conduct fire rehabilitation, and construct firebreaks and fences on enrolled land, USDA said.

Applications for enrollment in the program may be submitted starting Sept. 1 and will be ranked and selected based on Environmental Benefit Index scores.

The department also released a belated interim rule today that does not change the basic administrative structure and nature of CRP, USDA said, but instead implements the changes mandated in the 2014 farm bill. Those changes include a reduction in the CRP acreage cap and a penalty-free, early CRP contract termination opportunity for contracts that have been in effect for at least five years.

The interim rule also defines eligible grasslands as lands containing forbs or shrubland used primarily for grazing and limits CRP-Grasslands enrollment to 2 million acres.

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Greg Fogel, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Agri-Pulse that his advocacy organization “worked hard to secure the grassland enrollment option during the Farm Bill debate, and appreciate(s) that FSA is moving forward with its implementation.”

“The goal of this (grassland) enrollment option should be to enhance grasslands and associated resources,” Fogel continued, “and the best way for FSA… to do that is to promote managed rotational grazing, which improves soil quality, prevents erosion, sequesters carbon, and enhances wildlife habitat.”

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