Citing the crisis in Ukraine, the American Farm Bureau Federation and several food and feed processing groups appealed to the Biden administration on Wednesday to let farmers plant crops on prime farmland that’s currently idled under the Conservation Reserve Program.

“The United States needs to produce more grain and oilseeds to offset the loss of Ukraine’s grain and sunflowers. Time is of the essence,” the groups said in the letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“The planting window in the United States has already opened in some southern regions and will spread quickly north as we enter spring.”

The groups also urged USDA not to enroll any new acreage in the program that is deemed to be “prime farmland.”

In addition to AFBF, the letter led by the National Grain and Feed Association was also signed by the American Bakers Association, Agricultural Retailers Association, National Oilseed Processors Association, North American Millers’ Association, and North American Export Grain Association

Vilsack has so far shown no interest in opening CRP acreage to cropping and didn’t act on a request by the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, to delay a CRP enrollment period that ended March 11.

About 22 million acres of former cropland are currently enrolled in CRP under contracts that require the land to be kept in grass and trees. Landowners are barred from tilling the acreage, and grazing is restricted to protect wildlife habitat.

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The administration has been working to increase enrollment in CRP as part of its strategy to use agriculture to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Taking cropland out of production and seeding it to grass stores carbon in the soil.

CRP acreage is capped at 25.5 million acres for fiscal 2022; that limit will rise to 27 million acres for FY23, which begins Oct. 1.

The industry groups say 4.2 million of the 15.9 million acres under the rules for land enrolled under general signup rules is prime farmland, according to USDA’s 2017 National Resources Inventory.

“We urge USDA to provide flexibility to producers to plant crops on prime farmland as well as the least environmentally sensitive acres currently in the program without penalty, whether on an emergency basis or through an early-out of their current CRP contracts,” the letter said.

“We firmly believe that prime farmland acres should be accessible to working lands programs, including Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Security Program (CSP), that provide proven environmental benefits while continuing to produce abundant crops to the benefit of both U.S. and global consumers.”

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