The Agriculture Department plans to loosen existing Conservation Reserve Program rules by allowing participants to request termination of their CRP contract if they are in the final year of their agreement.

The change in rules, meant to help open up more acres to wheat production to offset global food challenges caused by the war in Ukraine, will allow qualifying farmers to terminate their contracts without having to repay rental payments. However, they will not be able to request termination of their contract until the end of the primary nesting season for fiscal year 2022.

“Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine has cut off a critical source of wheat, corn, barley, oilseeds and cooking oil, and we’ve heard from many producers who want to better understand their options to help respond to global food needs,” Zach Ducheneaux, the Administrator of the USDA Farm Service Agency, said in a release. “This announcement will help producers make informed decisions about land use and conservation options.”

Russia and Ukraine produce 29% of the world’s wheat exports and 17% of its corn exports, though analysts expect those exports to decrease in upcoming years due to the current conflict. U.S. government officials and agricultural industry leaders have been looking at ways to offset the loss of wheat, considering potential ways to expand double-cropping or encouraging wheat planting on expired CRP land.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, has called for allowing CRP contract holders to pull acreage from the program without penalty.

“The world cannot afford for prime farmland to lie fallow,” Boozman said on Thursday at the outset of a hearing with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

Typically, landowners enrolled in CRP would have to repay all previous CRP payments with interest and a penalty if they were to terminate their contracts early. The FSA’s recent change would eliminate those penalties.

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“For voluntary termination of a CRP [contract] expiring Sept. 30, 2022, USDA will waive the requirements to refund a part of the payments made by the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) with respect to the CRP contract, plus interest, and liquidated damages,” the agency said in a letter it sent to all eligible landowners on May 24. 

If producers’ requests for voluntary termination are approved, they will be able to hay, graze, work land or plant a fall-seeded crop before Oct. 1, 2022. Producers also have the option to enroll their expiring acres into the Continuous CRP program.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is also implementing new rules for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program to allow producers with cover cropping included in their contracts to plant a conservation crop rotation instead. They can also delay their cover crop plans for a year, the release said.

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