Landowners can start applying Monday to enroll acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program under what will be the first general signup in four years. 

It will also be the first general signup under rules changes and acreage increases mandated by the 2018. Because of the amount of acreage under expiring or recently expired contracts, USDA officials are expecting this to be one of the largest signups they’ve seen in nearly a decade.

“We know we’ve got room and there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for landowners,” Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce told reporters.

Contracts on 800,000 acres of land expired this fall and contracts on an additional 5.2 million acres are scheduled to expire in September 2020.

Currently, there are 22 million acres enrolled in CRP as of October 1. The program was capped at 24 million acres in 2014, but the limit increased to 24.5 million acres for fiscal 2020 and then rises to 25 million in FY21. 

“Between 5 million expiring and 2 million short of the cap we have about 7 million acres eligible to enroll under the cap for general, continuous, or the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program,” Brad Karmen, FSA Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs said.

Karmen said it is unclear how many acres will be available for general signup.

The general signup will end Feb. 28, while the continuous signup will be ongoing. A separate enrollment period for the grasslands component of CRP will run from March 16 through May 15.

The sluggish farm economy is expected to spur many landowners to apply for the program, but the 2018 farm bill also restricted payment rates to ensure that they don't exceed cash rental rates. The CRP rates are capped at 85% of the local cropland rental rates for the general signup and 90% of the rental rates for acreage enrolled under the continuous signup. The county payment rates are posted on FSA's CRP Statistics webpage. The rates will be reviewed and updated annually.

An interim final rule for the program that will be published in the Federal Register on Friday carries out directives in the 2018 farm bill by making changes to eligibility criteria for enrollment in CRP, benefits made available to participants, and the land use and compliance provisions of CRP.

The rule also will implement two new pilot programs. One is the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers 30 (CLEAR 30) Pilot Program, which is targeted to continuous signup practices that provide water quality protection by helping to reduce sediment loadings, nutrient loadings, and harmful algal blooms.

The other program is the Soil Heath and Income Protection Pilot (SHIPP) Program. In order to be enrolled, cropland must have been planted or considered planted to an agricultural commodity during each of the three crop years preceding enrollment.

In SHIPP, producers also must be verify land to be less-productive land as compared to other land on the farm.

The 2018 farm bill requires USDA to hold a general signup every year.

“CRP signups heading into 2020 represent significant opportunities for landowners, wildlife, economic development in rural communities and the nation’s most pressing conservation needs,” said Jim Inglis, director of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.

“Featuring new acreage allotments for each state and a variety of conservation practices, Conservation Reserve Program signups in 2020 and beyond will allow producers to target difficult to farm acres of low productivity which will ultimately provide wildlife habitat, create long term soil health and improve water quality, while maintaining productive agriculture on the best crop acres.”

Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called CRP "one of the most successful private lands conservation programs in history: and praised USDA for "a robust signup schedule."

However, he said that proposed changes to the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement Program, or SAFE, a wildlife habitat component of CRP, "and absolutely unnecessary cuts to incentive payments could blunt the benefits these conservation programs have on our water and wildlife." 

Corrects original version of this story to say that the continuous signup does not end.