WASHINGTON, July 6, 2016 - The most recent Conservation Reserve Program general signup demonstrated a striking contrast to previous enrollments, which left many wondering if USDA was inflicting or reflecting changes on the program. 

In May, USDA announced that over 410,000 general signup acres would be accepted this year into the CRP program, which allows producers to receive long-term payments in exchange for employing conservation practices on sensitive lands. The acreage was less than a quarter of the almost 1.7 million acres accepted in 2013, when about 88 percent of submitted acres were accepted, compared to just 22 percent this year.

Comparing spreadsheets of the most recent signup – the first under the 2014 farm bill – and the 2013 signup demonstrates the changes brought about by a new acreage cap on the program. The submitted offers and submitted acres were very similar, but the 24-million-acre cap put in place in the last farm bill played a heavy role in the plummeting acceptance rates. The previous cap was 32 million acres.

“That really made it more important for us to really look at every application with probably greater scrutiny than has been the case historically,” Val Dolcini, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “We had a lot more to dole out several years ago, and now we’re in a place where there’s a whole bunch of competition for a relatively limited amount of acres.”

That competition led to a more rigorous scoring process to select the CRP acres in the most recent signup. CRP acres are scored on the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), which weighs a number of factors (cost, wildlife habitat, water and air quality benefits, on-farm benefits, and benefits that will likely last beyond the CRP contract) to assign a number to a CRP proposal. In the 2013 signup, accepted offers had an EBI score greater than or equal to 209. In 2016, the threshold was elevated to 292.

Some on Capitol Hill wondered if changes were made to the EBI – something that can be done administratively and without congressional action – but Dolcini said that wasn’t the case. This signup was simply more competitive, he said. And that competition left many states without any significant amount of CRP acres in the latest general signup, especially because more than half of what was accepted went to Washington (116,452 acres), Colorado (48,005), and Kansas (44,156).

Washington was also the easy leader in percentage of acres accepted (51 percent), but 10 states had acceptance rates of 10 percent or less, including Ohio (10 percent), Montana and Minnesota (9 percent each), North Dakota (8 percent), Michigan (7 percent), New York (5 percent), Illinois (4 percent), and South Dakota (0.2 percent). Florida and West Virginia combined to submit 625 acres, none of which were accepted into the program. With the exception of West Virginia, which had no acres in the last general signup, all of those states had an enrollment rate of at least 69 percent (North Dakota’s rate) in 2013.

In terms of total accepted acres, no state took a bigger hit than Texas. The 28,505 acres accepted in the Lone Star state was a drop of almost 284,000 acres from the previous general signup. Only four other states experienced a six-figure difference in acreage: Montana (127,747), Colorado (121,498), and Kansas (101,996).

So what does all of this mean going forward? CRP remains a very popular program with lawmakers, producers, and regulators, especially in the current climate of low commodity prices. FSA has not announced the next general signup date, but it is a safe assumption that it will occur before passage of a new farm bill, and the next general signup could end up with a similarly low acreage acceptance rate compared to years past. Little wonder then, that CRP advocates are trying to build support – and find the funding - for a higher acreage cap in the next farm bill.

In the meantime, producers can still enroll in continuous CRP programs, which are not bound by the same competitive standards as general signups.


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