WASHINGTON, May 5, 2016 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says USDA will enroll more than 800,000 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) this year, while expressing hope that Congress will allow for even higher enrollment in the next farm bill.

“Our CRP program, over the last three decades, has been I think an incredible success,” Vilsack told Agri-Pulse in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “In addition to providing an additional income option for producers on their less productive lands, it’s also had an incredible environmental and conservation result.”

Participating farmers and ranchers in CRP enter into long-term contracts with USDA to use conservation practices on their land, improving environmental outcomes for wildlife, soil and water quality and/or the climate, in exchange for rental payments or federal cost-share funding to employ those practices.

According to USDA, CRP lands over the last five years have sequestered the equivalent of 47 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – the same as taking 9 million cars off the road annually. The department says that since the program’s inception, it has helped to prevent the erosion of 9 billion tons of soil, protected more than 170,000 stream miles with riparian and grass buffers, more than 100,000 acres of bottomland hardwood trees, nearly 300,000 acres of flood-plain wetlands, and 250,000 acres each for duck nesting habitat and upland bird habitat.

This year’s enrollment will be close to the 867,000 acres enrolled in CRP in 2015. “As of right now we have 23.8 million acres enrolled in the program, and about 1.7 million of those acres will be expiring this year,” Vilsack continued. “The challenge we’ve had is that there is greater demand for the program than Congress has allowed us to provide.”

Congress capped the number of acres enrolled in CRP at 24 million in the 2014 farm bill “to primarily save money,” Vilsack said, “at a time when commodity prices were high” and “CRP wasn’t as popular.” The cap was previously set at 32 million acres.

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Since then, “commodity prices have come down” and USDA “raised rental rates,” bolstering demand for CRP, which can provide big benefits to farmers and ranchers, he said.

“The Conservation Reserve Program provides nearly $2 billion annually to land owners – dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs,” Vilsack said in a release. “When these direct benefits are taken together with the resulting economic activity, the benefits related to CRP are estimated at $3.1 billion annually,” he said.

For CRP general sign-up, USDA received applications on 1.8 million acres, but given the cap, were only able to enroll 410,000 of those acres. Vilsack said another 330,000 acres were enrolled through continuous sign-up – “three times the rate of where it was last year when we set a record for acres in our continuous programs” – and enrolled more than 100,000 acres through its grasslands CRP program.

“When Congress begins to deliberate the 2018 farm bill, they’re going to be faced I think with a demand to rethink the cap on CRP,” Vilsack said. “The deliberation should not begin with ‘You have to save an artificial dollar amount,’ but it should really look at what the demand and need is.”