Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee are eyeing big changes to the Conservation Reserve Program in the upcoming farm bill, though many influential voices question whether the efforts will gain much steam.

The changes under consideration would eliminate the program's national acreage cap in lieu of an overall limit on funding and give Farm Service Agency state offices the authority to determine how many acres could be enrolled within their borders in the General, Grasslands and Continuous sign-ups, according to a Republican staffer familiar with discussions.

The amount of money that would be allocated to CRP under the new plan would be “consistent” with current CBO projections for the cost of the program, which is capped at 27 million acres, the staffer said.

The committee also is looking at the current Environmental Benefits Index, which is used to evaluate and rank land offered for CRP enrollment. Reversing the rental rate structure to pay more for land with poorer soils than for more productive acreage is another possible change, the staffer said.

Also under consideration are ways to shift land that has been enrolled in the general sign-up for long periods of time, in some cases 30 or more years, into the grasslands sign-up, which allows enrollment of existing grasslands but generally pays landowners less than they would receive through the CRP general sign-up.

House Ag Committee Chairman Glenn "GT" Thompson told Agri-Pulse he’s looking at several different options. "Everything’s kind of on the table when you do a reauthorization," he said.

CRP was created in 1985 as a way to simultaneously deal with price-depressing crop surpluses that were hammering the farm economy while also reducing soil erosion on highly erodible cropland. The program now has three major components with varying rules and payment structures: the continuous, grasslands and general sign-ups.

General CRP focuses on retiring whole fields from production for 10- to 15-year periods, while continuous CRP targets smaller parcels through practices like buffers and filter strips. Grassland CRP allows farmers to graze the land they enroll, which can only be done in “emergency” conditions under general sign-up rules.

Thompson emphasized to Agri-Pulse that the options were still under discussion.

 “We really haven’t landed on any particular solution at this point,” Thompson said. 

The changes are being eyed as a path toward moving CRP away from being a “top-down” program into a more “locally-led” one, according to the staffer. Proponents of the changes also believe modifications will help lawmakers and USDA focus more on conservation rather than making policy changes based on CBO's financial estimates. 

“You’re tweaking legislation based on the cost, not the environmental outcomes,” the staffer said. “And on the flip side, USDA is over there administering it, not necessarily on the environmental outcomes, but making sure they’re not losing farm bill baseline.”

Thompson  said he wants the program to better target highly erodible or environmentally sensitive land. 

“One of the things with these conservation programs that we haven’t done well is sometimes we look at them in terms of acreage and not outcomes,” Thompson said. “And outcomes are kind of important.”

Some former committee members and longtime lobbyists, however, have concerns, particularly when it comes to changing CRP into a dollar-based program. 

Ferd Hoefner, a policy consultant and former policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition,  is concerned that some states could be "cut out” from receiving allocations under the state-level plan based on their historic enrollment trends, even if they have environmentally sensitive land that should be enrolled.

“At the end of the day, we should be looking at CRP that maximizes environmental benefits,” Hoefner said. “And you don’t do that with these kinds of ideas.”

Former House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson likes the idea of focusing more on marginal land, but he worries a dollar-based program would be easier for Congress to cut. He said he didn’t think there would be a “stomach” for some of the ideas in the Senate; the proposed changes, he added, would likely “set off a hornets' nest” among groups representing several different interests.

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“I don’t think they’ll be able to do this,” said Peterson, House Ag's top Democrat for the last three farm bills. “I just don’t think they’re going to have the support to do it.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.Former House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who unveiled a proposal earlier this year to expand CRP’s continuous and grassland sign-ups while cutting the overall acreage cap to 24 million acres, expressed some skepticism about giving states more control over the program.

“I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t consider anything else, but right now after two or three decades of CRP, I’m more interested in tweaking it and keeping it a national program than I am turning it over to the states,” Grassley, R-Iowa, told Agri-Pulse.

Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, a previous House Ag Committee chairman and now a senior Republican on the committee, said discussions about revising CRP come up during every farm bill redrafting. He said he has not been involved in the latest talks. 

“I have a difficult time seeing how you dramatically shift it away from the present program,” Lucas said. “Because when you give states authority, as we’ve seen in welfare reform, they tend to game the system in whatever way that will bring the most money home.”

Lynn Tjeerdsma, a long-time expert on conservation policy and a former adviser for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told Agri-Pulse he’s supportive of the proposed changes. While he admitted that turning CRP into a dollar-based program opens up the possibility of future cuts, he said providing states with more control and flexibility could help better meet their goals. He added that FSA already has state and county committees that could help make those decisions.

“I think it would be important to have the state technical committee buy-in or approve of whatever the FSA decided, however they wanted the program to operate,” Tjeerdsma said.

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