The Agriculture Department is accepting 3.4 million acres into the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program following the first general signup in four years.

The number was expected to be larger by some followers of the program, potentially eclipsing the 4.3 million acres enrolled in 2010, in part because of the sluggish farm economy and the higher cap of 24.5 million acres set by the 2018 farm bill. 

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Eighty-nine percent of the acreage that landowners offered for the program, about 3.8 million acres, wound up being accepted. The cut-off for enrollment was an environmental benefits index of 210. Texas, Colorado, and Kansas saw some of the highest number of acres, according to USDA's state by state data.

“We’re under the cap,” Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce told Agri-Pulse. Something to keep in mind, he said, is that general signup is one program that feeds into the larger CRP total cap, which grows to 27 million by 2023.

“If all of the accepted acres go ahead and go through the process and generate a contract, we’re still going to have some room,” Fordyce said. At this point, it doesn’t look like the agency would have another general signup this year, but he said there would "certainly" be another enrollment period next year.

Jim Inglis, director of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, said the acreage "will provide critical conservation and wildlife habitat across the country." 

But Inglis said the enrollment is only about halfway toward the 8 million acres needed to meet the 2020 acreage cap.

“Our attention now turns to enrolling acres into the Continuous and Grassland practices, as well as new opportunities in the SHIPP program,” he said. SHIPP, or the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, was created in the 2018 farm bill. 

Inglis also noted the comments Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue made before the House Agriculture Committee "that it is his goal to reach full enrollment and that he's amenable to additional signups if needed." For his part, Perdue in a statement Thursday called CRP "one of our nation’s largest conservation endeavors" and said it is "critical in helping producers better manage their operations while conserving valuable natural resources."

National Association of Conservation Districts President Tim Palmer said NACD appreciated "USDA’s quick turnaround to enroll new acreage, especially in a time when our nation’s producers need support, and look forward to learning more about the acres and practices accepted under the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement in this general sign up in light of the changes recently implemented by FSA to this program."

Producers enrolled in the program, now in its 35th year, receive a yearly rental payment for planting approved trees and grasses to control soil erosion, improve water quality and wildlife habitat on cropland.

The general signup also included the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, which allows producers to install practices to restore wildlife habitats through conservation. SAFE offers represented over 478,500 acres in general signup, according to USDA.

County offices will begin contacting producers who were accepted into general CRP no later than April 3.

The deadline for general CRP signup ended February 28 but continuous CRP, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, CRP grasslands and the SHIPP are ongoing.

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