WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2016 - The prospect for another year of low commodity prices has farmers scrambling for safer revenue in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, but there’s less space than ever in the land-idling program thanks to recent cuts by Congress.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency is now holding a general signup for the program that pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land. The deadline to enroll land is Feb. 26, and FSA Administrator Val Dolcini told Agri-Pulse that lots of applications are being submitted and he expects the volume to rise over the next several days.

CRP contracts for about 1.6 million acres expire this fall, but that doesn’t mean FSA will be able to enroll that many new acres. Some land owners will be able to re-enroll acreage and new caps set by Congress have the agency concerned about not allowing too many acres in.

“Until we know exactly how many people re-enrolled and weigh that against the number of acres in the applications we’ve been receiving since this general signup started, we won’t know the exact number,” Dolcini said in an interview. “But I think that there will be more applications for participation in the program than we have available acres for.”

Not only is there a flood of applicants, there’s less room in the program. Congress, in a succession of cost-saving efforts, cut the CRP from 39 million acres to 32 million in the 2008 farm bill and then made even steeper cuts in the 2014 farm bill. The cap was staggered to cut CRP each fiscal year, from 27.5 million acres in 2014, to 26 million in 2015, to 25 million this year and to 24 million in 2017 and 2018.

As it stands now there are 23.5 million acres enrolled and enrollment statutorily cannot go above 24 million for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

But even though the FSA is very limited in the number of new acres that it can accept, the stiff competition happening now for enrollment means that the agency will have its pick of some of the most environmentally sensitive land to preserve and conserve.

Declining commodity prices has farmers looking for an “economic buffer,” and that has made CRP a very popular program, Dolcini said. “In light of what will be a very competitive signup, the applications we’ll get for CRP will be very, very competitive.”

When prices are high, farmers generally try to keep as much land as possible producing corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops – including less productive land that may be environmentally sensitive. But conservationists want to see as many of those sensitive acres idled as possible.

“You really do want to be targeting the most environmentally sensitive acres,” said Greg Fogel, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

And with futures prices so low, it will be the most marginal land that farmers will be trying to put in CRP, said Jack Scoville, vice president of the Chicago-based Price Futures Group.

“If you have any marginal land – and almost everybody does – then you’re going to look at putting that land in the (CRP) and getting paid for it as soon as you can,” Scoville said. “I expect to see a pretty sharp increase in the use of the program.”

And that is good news for the environment, said Dolcini and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“The Conservation Reserve Program has been and continues to be a key piece of USDA’s conservation strategy, and with this competitive sign-up we are encouraging applications that offer the greatest environmental protection,” Vilsack said in a recent statement.

“The goal is to get the best acreage that we can,” Dolcini said. “I think we’ll have some really good applications from around the country to choose from. We’ve got a limited amount of acreage, so we’ll certainly have to pick and choose.”

Taking the most marginal land out of production creates new wildlife habitat, improves water quality by reducing phosphorous runoff and reduces topsoil erosion across the country, Dolcini said. And this is some of the land worst suited for farming, he added.

“That’s been one of the underpinnings of CRP over the years,” Dolcini said. “It’s marginal farmland that’s highly erodible. In some cases it might have wetlands on it. It’s not that primo Midwestern soil that grows great crops under any condition.”

In fact, Scoville said, taking all of that poorer farmland out of production could have the effect of actually improving the national yield averages.


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