House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, in an unusually blunt confrontation with a senior USDA official, threatened to sue the department for resuming enrollment Wednesday in the “continuous” portion of the Conservation Reserve Program. 

Peterson, D-Minn., told the administrator of the Farm Service Agency, Richard Fordyce, during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday that starting the signups now for continuous contracts as well as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program would mean that fewer landowners would be interested when the general CRP signup occurs in December. 

“I’m going to stop it somehow or another,” Peterson said of the continuous signup, which FSA announced Wednesday morning. At another point, Peterson said to Fordyce, “If I have to sue you, I will.” 

Acreage enrolled under the continuous signup is typically for filter strips and riparian buffers along streams and waterways or for wetland restoration, and payments are considerably higher than for land idled under the periodic general signups. USDA stopped accepting applications under the continuous signup last fall when the 2014 farm bill expired. 

Landowners are “going to get three times as much as they will get in the general. That’s just going to just suck more acres up into the continuous that are not going to be available for the general," Peterson said. 

The 2018 farm bill imposed new limits on payments under both types of CRP contracts. Payment rates will be capped at no more than 85 percent of the average county rental rate for general sign-up contracts and at no more than 90 percent of the county rental rate for the continuous signup. The rate caps were intended to address concerns that excessive CRP payments were encouraging landowners in Iowa and other states to idle productive land in CRP rather than allowing it to be farmed. 

The average payment rate for general signup contracts is $52 an acre, compared to $134 an acre for continuous contracts. 

FSA is applying the 90-percent cap to the continuous signup announced Wednesday.

The department delayed the general signup to write new regulations implementing changes made by the 2018 farm bill, but Fordyce told Peterson that the continuous signup could be resumed without developing new rules. 

He gave no indication that the department would shut down the continuous signup. He emphasized that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was committed to having the general signup in December, though FSA hasn't finalized the new regulations. 

Fordyce said there were several new CRP requirements in the farm bill that didn’t apply to the continuous signup. 

In an interview after the hearing, Fordyce said the department has the legal authority “to move forward with those continuous practices, with slightly reduced rental rates and no (payment) incentives.” 

Fordyce said that the continuous and general contracts involve different types of land. 

Parcels enrolled under continuous signup contracts are “not big blocks. They’re literally strips in a lot of cases. The general (signup) is more likely to take in whole fields, big blocks probably, less productive land,” Fordyce said. 

Peterson has long been a champion of CRP and its use for enrolling larger blocks of land that provide prime bird habitat. He worked to ensure that the 2018 farm bill raised the overall cap on CRP to 27 million acres. It was cut to 24 million acres in the 2014 farm bill. 

As of April, there were 13.5 million acres enrolled under the general signup and 6.6 million acres in continuous contracts. 

Aviva Glaser of the National Wildlife Federation said her group was concerned that the general CRP signup isn't happening sooner but also welcomed the resumption of CREP and continuous contract enrollment. Still, she expressed concern that there would be no incentive payments offered for the continuous signup and that some practices wouldn't be included. 

Holding the general signup in December means that the acreage that is accepted won't enter the program until October 2020, when the following fiscal year begins. 

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