As one of the largest private-lands conservation programs in the United States, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has provided a variety of stewardship and natural preservation benefits on agricultural lands. However, its implementation has been overly broad, allowing large tracts of prime, productive farmland to idle even during times of high demand for U.S. agricultural commodities. 

For years, NGFA has insisted that the CRP should target the most environmentally sensitive portions of farms and avoid enrollment of whole farms or large tracts of productive farmland. Many of rural America’s local economies are driven by agricultural production and enrolling whole farms in CRP often weakens those communities.

We also recognize the imperative need to balance agricultural production with conservation practices that enrich soil and water quality. Federal programs are critical in ensuring that conservation remains an economically viable companion to farming. We have long supported working lands programs that incentivize stewardship and proven conservation practices on working farms. The CRP – traditionally a cropland retirement program – must adapt its approach to remain effective. 

As lawmakers negotiate the next farm bill in a fraught political environment, one possible solution for a more efficient CRP comes from a bipartisan pairing of Senate Agriculture Committee members.

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recently introduced the CRP Reform Act of 2023, which would reform the CRP to focus enrollments on marginal farmland and grasslands rather than prime farmland. The senators say the bill will meet the twin goals of generating more durable wildlife and environmental benefits while simultaneously reducing competition for productive farmland between USDA and farmers, especially beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. 

This bill would codify into law several reforms to the CRP that have been advocated for by the agricultural supply chain, including: 

  • Maintaining CRP’s overall acreage cap at 24 million acres for fiscal years 2024-2028.
  • Reducing the rental rate for general sign-ups to 75 percent of each county’s average cash rental rate.
  • Providing incentives for enrolling marginal land into CRP continuous categories.

Supporting New Farmers: The 2018 farm bill included several CRP reforms that the NGFA supported throughout the legislative process, including capping rental rates offered by USDA. For no reason should the federal government make it harder for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to compete and gain access to land needed to expand their operations.

Sens. Booker and Grassley recognize the importance of supporting beginning farmers by expanding the rental rate limit set in the last farm bill. This proposal will help foster the next generation of farmers and promote diversity and resilience in our agricultural sector.

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Protecting Marginal Farmland: One of the key provisions of the CRP Reform Act is the focus on marginal farmland for enrollment. Marginal farmland often lacks the productivity of prime farmland, making it ideal for conservation purposes. The reforms in the 2018 farm bill have led to fewer acres of prime farmland enrolled in the program. This approach builds on those reforms to ensure that our efforts are targeted where they are most needed, maximizing the positive impact on our ecosystems.

Longer-Term Agreements and Grasslands Preservation: To make a lasting difference, the CRP Reform Act emphasizes longer-term agreements and the preservation of grasslands. By extending maximum contract lengths to 30 years, the act allows for more comprehensive planning and implementation of conservation practices. This ensures that important habitat for wildlife is preserved and provides greater certainty for farmers, enabling them to make long-term investments in sustainable farming practices.

The CRP Reform Act of 2023 represents a practical and forward-thinking approach to conservation and sustainable agriculture. By focusing on marginal farmland, supporting new farmers, and prioritizing longer-term agreements and grasslands preservation, this act ensures the CRP remains relevant and impactful in the face of evolving environmental challenges.

In this farm bill process, we have a unique, bipartisan opportunity to make a real difference for our environment and future generations. By supporting these reforms, we can enhance our most productive farmland, preserve wildlife habitats, and pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient agricultural future.

Mike Seyfert is president and CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, a broad-based, non-profit trade association that represents and provides services for grain, feed and related commercial businesses.

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