The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee is alleging that the Biden administration improperly increased payment rates for the Conservation Reserve Program in order to lure landowners to enroll acreage in it, and that the resulting contracts may turn out to be invalid.

In a strongly worded letter Thursday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said that the USDA violated provisions of the 2018 farm bill when the county payment rates were raised. The deadline for the latest general signup is Friday.

“Programmatically, I am concerned that USDA is preparing to enter into questionable CRP contracts covering millions of acres that will leave the farming and financial plans of thousands of farmers and ranchers in disarray if and when these contracts are ruled out of compliance with the authorizing statute,” says the letter obtained by Agri-Pulse

“Litigating the adjustments in courts across the country will only cause more delay, and more harm, to those landowners enrolled in the program,” Boozman wrote. 

The changes are a key part of the administration’s plans to use agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by keeping carbon in the soil. Vilsack announced the higher country rates and increases in other incentives in April on the eve of a global climate summit. He is hoping to enroll 4 million more acres in the program.

An additional 4 million acres would still leave the program short of the statutory cap on the program, which rises to 25.5 million acres in fiscal 2022, which starts Oct. 1. Fewer than 20.8 million acres are currently enrolled in the program. The FY21 cap is 25 million acres.

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USDA offered a 10% “inflationary” adjustment to the county payment rates and also set a minimum payment rate for CRP grasslands of $15 an acre.

“Such adjustments to rental rate payments pose a number of threats, including that rising farm rents will price beginning and limited resource farmers out of the market of productive farm land," Boozman wrote. 

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, USDA defended the rules: "USDA is confident that it is implementing the Conservation Reserve Program authority appropriately.  The 2018 Farm Bill reduced the starting point for CRP payments—the base county soil rental rates.  But it also continued to allow discretionary incentives and factors to be applied to encourage owners and operators of eligible land to participate in the program."

Vilsack said the additional 4 million acres of CRP land would "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.”

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