WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2015 - Farmers and other landowners are invited to USDA’s 46th general sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program, to run from Dec. 1 to Feb. 26.

The 30-year-old program will be shrunk in acreage by almost a third, to 24 million acres by 2017, from a high of 36.8 million acres in 2007. Congress had ordered the downsizing as USDA recedes from conservation programs that idle cropland and expands those that encourage practices to enhance soil, water and wildlife on actively farmed and ranched lands.

Though the cutback is mandated, the decline in acreage has also been driven by a strong market for field crops that enticed farmers to return fields to crop production when CRP contracts expired. Alexander Barbarika, USDA specialist on CRP, says that shift showed up particularly where new varieties of high-yielding, shorter-season soybeans and corn expanded production of those crops from the Corn Belt northward and west into the Great Plains: From 2007 to 2015, for example, CRP acreage fell by 57 percent in Montana, 55 percent in North Dakota and 40 percent in Michigan.

In the meantime, farmers are committing more and more land in the Conservation Stewardship Program, in which producers take a comprehensive whole-farm approach to conservation practices. Enrollment has mounted steadily to just over 65 million acres in 48,000 contracts.

Still, 1.4 million acres were in CRP contracts that expired in September, and another 1.6 million are in contracts to end next September. So USDA will have a fistful of acres that can be put into the program’s 10- and 15-year contracts that give landowners rent plus match their expenses to idle the land.

While national CRP acreage has plunged, the average rent CRP pays per acre has climbed by a third. The average is now $67, though it ranges widely, of course, according to commercial land values and rents. Thus, CRP payments, average $30-$40 per acre in the dry West but over $160 in Iowa and Maryland. The increases have occurred with the past several years’ steep climb in commercial land values, but also because the distribution of CRP acreage has shifted away from large fields of cheap, highly-erodible land in the Plains and West, and toward smaller tracts and strips of pricier land along rivers, around lakes, in wetland areas, or to created strips for pollinator habitat, and so forth. As a result, total rents paid by CRP are down much less than is the acreage: only about 10 percent since 2008, to $1.6 billion a year.

CRP has seen a strong trend into affiliated “initiatives.” The largest is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, which sets up partnerships with state wildlife agencies to focus jointly with states or regions on specific wildlife protection and habitat goals.

For example, says Barbarika, “In the Chesapeake Bay area, all six surrounding states have CREP agreements . . . for restoring the bay, saving the bay,” by reducing pollution in runoff, improving fish and waterfowl habitat and more. “They’re able to better target their efforts together that way,” he says.

A related CRP initiative, called State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), was started in 2008 and provides CRP rental payments and assistance to landowners who complete plantings and manage areas as requested by state and local agencies or other nonprofit wildlife or naturalist entities as part of USDA-sanctioned plans to improve wildlife habitat. More than 1 million CRP acres are now devoted to SAFE.

CRP’s growing penchant for promoting wildlife coincides with the trend on American farms and ranches to expand wildlife populations and offer hunting, bird-watching, bed and breakfast, farm visits and the like as part of the farming business. In announcing the upcoming CRP sign-up earlier this year, for example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, ordered the designation of “an additional 800,000 acres for duck nesting habitat and other wetland and wildlife habitat initiatives to be enrolled in the [CRP] program.”

All told, CRP’s wildlife enhancement initiatives, including one started in 2012 to increase pollinator habitat, claim one in seven of CRP acres nationally.

While Congress shrank CRP acreage, long devoted entirely to removing tilled land from crop production, it also merged the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) into CRP for purposes of rental payments and total acreage, so that the grassland idling contracts must fit within CRP’s 24-million-acre cap. USDA is also currently accepting applications for GRP contracts.

Note, too, this CRP feature added by the farm bill. Called the Transition Incentives Program, it offers two extra annual rental payments to expiring CRP contracts if the contract holder is selling the land and completes an agreement with USDA to sell to a beginning (farming less than 10 years) or socially disadvantaged farmer. About $25 million remains available to fund those extra payments.


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