Will we get a new farm bill this year? The congressional Ag Committees have certainly been working on one, but as the Easter recess began, negotiations between Democrats and Republicans headed south, primarily over food stamp reform. Talk of extending the current bill had ramped up.

Whether we get a farm bill this year or after the mid-term elections, I think it’s important to look at some of the ideas under consideration, especially regarding the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Should Congress adjust payment rates or expand acreage? Can we tweak the program to better safeguard the most environmentally sensitive land?

The next farm bill will likely include an option to cap CRP rental rates at 80 percent of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) average rental rate by state and county. This change would cut program costs and avoid competition with producers seeking to rent land to farm. Nationwide CRP rental rates currently average $77 per acre but at the state level can top $200 per acre as they do in Iowa, where CRP average county rental rates are among the highest in the nation. At the top of the list is Cherokee County, Iowa, with an average CRP rental rate of $313 per acre.

A number of legislators like this strategy for different reasons. For Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, lower CRP rental rates increase the likelihood that landowners would choose to rent or sell to beginning famers eager to start farming rather than locking land into CRP contracts at a lower rate. Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, favors the 80-percent rate to save funds to enable a cap increase on CRP acreage from 24 million to 30 million acres.

To get the greatest bang for the taxpayers’ dollar and increase opportunity for beginning farmers, I still prefer the reverse auction approach I wrote about last Fall. Let landowners tell the Farm Service Agency what rental rates they are willing to accept rather than setting rates upfront. Consider the conservation value of the land proposed for contract as well as the rate offered.

The idea that CRP rental rates beat out competition from beginning farmers may be more coffee shop conversation than reality. Nevertheless, I want to ensure that the focus of CRP is on enrolling acres with the highest environmental value and implementing practices that increase that value, such as protecting and restoring wetlands and installing filter strips to protect water quality. We need to prioritize enrolling these acres over including whole fields in CRP. As a conservationist, I measure CRP success based on environmental benefits achieved rather than acres covered.

In another cost-saving measure, the next farm bill may cut cost-share for planting cover on CRP acres to 40 percent. Perhaps a better approach is to look at the seed mixtures required—simple mixes of introduced legumes and native grasses at a few dollars per pound versus more exotic mixtures costing well over $20 per pound to promote pollinators. Maybe the solution to reducing costs is to adjust agency management decisions requiring expensive seed mixtures rather than cutting assistance to farmers. It’s a balancing act – I don’t want to bring back the brome grass desert that was first generation CRP, but USDA has been chasing butterflies and not managing the actual cost of CRP restoration.

We need to consider a more flexible CRP. Instead of the standard 10-year contracts, what about an option to sign three to five-year contracts with significantly lower rental rates, as my friend South Dakota Senator John Thune proposed in a bill last year? Or go the other direction and offer 15–20-year continuous contracts on filters and wetlands?

Some of these options USDA could simply put into practice without legislation. They are essentially administrative changes. But if USDA were to do so, any cost savings that result would not count when a new farm bill is scored. That’s something to bear in mind as well if the farm bill is delayed into next year or beyond.

As we look forward, we need to assess carefully how to best meet the objectives of saving money, promoting conservation and encouraging farmers—new or old—to make the best use of their land.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service.