NGFA urges USDA to downsize CRP to protect jobs & growth

By Agri-Pulse Staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, April 13 – Warning that idling productive farmland “cuts off the economic multiplier inherent in crop, livestock and poultry production,” the National Grain and Feed Association is urging the Department of Agriculture to downsize and significantly reform the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to facilitate U.S. agriculture’s ability to achieve economic growth, create jobs and revitalize rural communities.

In a statement submitted in response to a USDA supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on future CRP policy options, the NGFA said it was “flawed, erroneous and short-sighted” to assess the CRP’s environmental benefits “in isolation and in a vacuum” without also considering the positive environmental benefits accrued through other USDA conservation programs, modern agricultural tillage practices and existing conservation requirements imposed under USDA farm programs. To read USDA’s 622-page EIS on future CRP policy options, go to:

“If U.S. agriculture is to achieve economic growth, which in turn contributes to job creation and revitalization of rural communities, it is imperative that the CRP be right-sized and reformed,” wrote NGFA President Kendell Keith. “The idling of productive land resources cuts off the economic multiplier inherent in crop, livestock and poultry production, thereby costing jobs and suffocating economic vitality in rural communities.  Further, it risks compromising the United States’ ability to provide abundant, affordable and cost-competitive food, animal feed, exports and biofuels.”

Of the three policy alternatives contained in USDA’s draft environmental assessment, the NGFA favored the option that would reduce the size of the CRP to 24 million acres.  But the NGFA encouraged USDA to allocate more than the 4 million acres called for under that policy option to targeted signups of the most environmentally sensitive land, such as through buffer strips and grassed waterways. 

“We submit that reducing the size of the CRP – and reallocating some of its financial expenditures to conservation programs that benefit working farmlands, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), as well as targeted CRP enrollments of the most environmentally sensitive lands – would achieve greater conservation benefits than idling under the CRP vast tracts of tillable land that can be farmed in environmentally sustainable ways,” the NGFA said.  The association noted that given the burgeoning federal budget deficit, USDA likely will be under increased congressional pressure to achieve greater environmental benefits with reduced spending under its multiple conservation programs.

The other two policy options offered in USDA’s draft environmental assessment both call for enrolling 32 million acres in the CRP – the maximum allowed by Congress under the 2008 farm law during the fiscal year 2010-12 period. Both of those alternatives, the NGFA said, take a “fundamentally flawed and harmful policy approach that views the 32-million-acre CRP statutory limit as a floor, rather than a ceiling.”

“The NGFA continues to believe a more focused CRP targeted on the most environmentally sensitive lands can be a positive contributor to the long-term success of U.S. agriculture while providing environmental benefits,” the NGFA statement continued.  “But the current CRP that still represents, in acreage terms, the fourth largest U.S. “crop” – despite the 2008 farm law’s reduced ceiling to 32 million acres – is ill-suited to that objective.”

Concerning other aspects of the draft CRP environmental impact assessment, the NGFA:

  • Urged USDA to investigate whether the quantity of tillable acres in counties was calculated correctly when the CRP first was established, since those data are used to determine whether those counties have exceeded the statutory 25 percent limit on enrollment.  The NGFA said because of concerns that such data were inaccurate, and since CRP land tends to be concentrated in certain areas of a county, more counties may exceed the 25 percent limit than USDA believes.  The NGFA said this concern needs to be resolved before USDA considers alternatives for allowing counties to exceed the 25 percent cap, which the 2008 farm law – like its predecessors – permits if county governments certify that idling additional land will not adversely affect the local economy and that farm operators are having difficulty complying with highly erodible land conservation requirements for working cropland. 
  • Urged USDA to proceed cautiously when implementing the 2008 farm law’s provision that requires its National Agricultural Statistics Service to conduct annual surveys of per-acre estimates of county average market dryland and irrigated cash rental rates for counties with 20,000 or more cropland and pasture acres.  “USDA needs to ensure that CRP rental rates follow – and do not lead – local land value markets, and adequately account for soil-productivity adjustments on less-productive CRP land,” the NGFA wrote.  “One of the worst things USDA could do would be to increase CRP rental rates to levels that trigger a ratcheting up of land values, thereby creating an economic hurdle that precludes entry of new and young farmers into production agriculture, or slams the door on farmers wanting to expand their operations.  U.S. agricultural producers should not have to bid against the financial resources of USDA and the federal government to grow crops to meet demand for food, feed, biofuels and exports.”
  • Supported a CRP policy alternative that reflects the 2008 farm law’s authorization to routinely graze and manage harvest (including biomass) or other commercial-use forage on CRP acres once every three years, including for emergency haying and grazing. 

The NGFA also reiterated the following additional reforms that it believes are “essential if the CRP is to avoid becoming a permanent albatross” that shackles U.S. agricultural growth and competitiveness, job creation and rural development:

  • Provide additional flexibility for acres to exit the CRP prior to contract expiration if economic conditions warrant and with the consent of the producer/landowner and USDA.  Under this concept, the most environmentally sensitive land enrolled in the CRP would remain ineligible for early contract termination.  But producers would have the flexibility to take advantage of new market opportunities without being saddled with economically punitive penalties for removing tillable, environmentally sustainable acres when market demand signals a compelling need for additional crop production.  Currently, CRP rules impose economically prohibitive and insurmountable barriers for landowners attempting to restore to crop production tillable land that can be farmed in environmentally sustainable ways.
  • Ensure that once CRP contract acres exit or expire, the base-acre history of that land is restored so it is eligible for full farm program benefits established under the farm law.
  • Allow for early preparation of land subject to CRP contracts scheduled to expire or nearing eligibility for early contract termination.  This would ease the transition for producers and improve the potential for successful cultivation fully in line with sound conservation practices, the NGFA said.
  • Focus scarce conservation financial resources on working lands programs, such as EQIP and CSP, while limiting land-idling that is detrimental to U.S. agricultural growth and competitiveness.  

“The NGFA strongly urges USDA to take this opportunity to bring about much-needed fundamental reforms of the CRP,” the statement concluded.  “U.S. agriculture needs a CRP that is balanced and effective, recognizes the totality of conservation benefits accrued through a wide range of other USDA conservation programs (including those focused on working farmlands), takes into account the conservation practice requirements imposed under federal farm programs, and does not operate at cross-purposes with a healthy commercial U.S. agricultural sector that is so vital to rural development, job creation and economic growth.” 

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