The Biden administration is increasing payment rates and offering new financial incentives in a bid to spur landowners to enroll 4 million more acres into the Conservation Reserve Program.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the plan in a meeting Wednesday of the administration’s climate task force on the eve of the global climate summit, according to a readout provided by the White House.

The higher payment rates and expanded incentives will be combined “with a more targeted focus on the program’s role in climate change mitigation” at a total additional cost of $300 million a year, the White House statement said.

“CRP is a powerful tool when it comes to climate mitigation, and acres currently enrolled in the program mitigate more than 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent,” the statement said.

“If USDA reaches its goal of enrolling an additional 4 million acres into the program, it will mitigate an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent and prevent 90 million pounds of nitrogen and 33 million tons of sediment from running into our waterways each year.”

More than four million acres are needed just to bring it up to the 25-million-acre limit set by Congress in the 2018 farm bill for fiscal 2021, which ends Sept. 30. Fewer than 20.8 million acres are currently enrolled in the program.

Three million of the existing CRP acres are in contracts set to expire Sept. 30, with another 4 million acres due to leave in 2022.

According to USDA, the Farm Service Agency will be adjusting soil rental rates, which will provide "additional flexibility for rate adjustments, including a possible increase in rates where appropriate." Payments on practice incentives will be increased from 20% to 50%, and payments for water quality practices will be raised from 10% to 20%.

FSA also is setting a grassland minimum rental rate for grassland that will affect more than 1,300 counties that now have rates below that. 

In other changes, USDA is:

  • Moving State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) practices to the CRP continuous signup. Under the continuous signup portion of CRP, producers can sign up year-round and be eligible for additional incentives.
  • Creating national grassland priority zones to increase enrollment of grasslands in migratory corridors and environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Making Highly Erodible Land Initiative (HELI) practices available in both the general and continuous signups.
  • Expanding a pilot program for long-term protection of sensitive acreage - the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers 30-year contracts (CLEAR30) - from the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay regions to nationwide. FSA also will hold a 2021 signup for the short-term Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) in the Prairie Pothole states. 

The National Association of Conservation Districts welcomed the CRP sweeteners.  “Inadequate compensation for landowners has led to low enrollment in the program in the past year," NACD President Michael Crowder said. "These increased rental rates and incentives are critical to ensuring farmers are appropriately compensated for participating in CRP."

But the National Grain and Feed Association, which represents grain processors and traders, responded by urging USDA to “avoid enrolling large tracts of productive cropland. “Programs that drastically increase acreage idling in the United States send market signals to competitors to plant more acres, resulting in negative climate and environmental impacts.” said NGFA President and CEO Mike Seyfert. 

USDA also announced that it has approved $330 million in 85 Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects and is offering $25 million for on-farm trials under the Conservation Innovation Grants program. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will solicit proposals for those trials through June 21.

Separately, Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland have been assigned with forming an inter-agency working group to address the needs of communities hurt by drought. "The Working Group also will explore opportunities to improve our nation’s resilience to droughts and other severe climate impacts that are upending Americans’ lives and economic livelihoods," the statement said. 

Vilsack will address the climate summit in the afternoon.

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