WASHINGTON, Dec.7, 2016 –  USDA is offering farmers and ranchers new opportunities to participate in the Conservation Reserve Program, including new techniques to protect water quality and adding 1.1 million acres to a number of key CRP practices.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new initiatives today in an address to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation at the group’s annual meeting in Des Moines. Later he accepted an honor on behalf of USDA from the World Food Prize.

"The Conservation Reserve Program is an extremely popular voluntary program that offers producers and landowners a wide variety of opportunities to prevent erosion, protect wildlife habitat and reduce nutrient runoff," Vilsack said in a release. "With the program close to the legal enrollment limit of 24 million acres, USDA has been working to use all of the tools at our disposal to maximize benefits by combining multiple soil, water and wildlife objectives in the areas where it is needed most."

Vilsack unveiled a new conservation initiative known as Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR), which will add new tools to CRP that can help to improve water quality. USDA said Clear will help landowners with the cost of building bioreactors and saturated buffers that filter nitrates and other nutrients from tile-drained cropland.

CLEAR could help to reduce nitrate runoff by as much as 40 percent over traditional conservation methods, the department said, citing early estimates. The initiative may cover up to 90 percent of the cost to install these new practices through incentives and cost-share. USDA said the new methods are especially important in areas where traditional buffers have not been enough to prevent nutrients from reaching bodies of water.

USDA also will add 1.1 million acres to a number of key CRP practices that are critically important to wildlife and conservation. Some 700,000 acres are earmarked for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) efforts, which restore high-priority wildlife habitat tailored to a specific state's needs. In addition, 300,000 acres will be added to target wetlands restoration and 100,000 acres for pollinator habitat.

The department says the strong demand for CRP combined with the limited acreage available for enrollment and lower land rental rates is allowing USDA to modify certain program components without affecting the integrity of the program. Signing incentives are being reduced by $25 per acre on certain practices for fiscal year 2018 enrollments (incentives are currently between $100 and $150 per acre) and a cap on the maximum soil rental rate is being instituted for Continuous CRP at $300 per acre. The savings from these changes are being reinvested back in CRP, including the additional acres for SAFE, pollinator habitat and wetlands restoration.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition welcomed USDA’s plan to cap the rental rate for Continuous CRP practices, saying it’s a “great example of the agency thinking creatively about how to improve conservation opportunities while also responding to growing congressional concern over land access issues.”

“This change will free state Farm Service Agency offices to allocate more acres to priority initiatives where needed,” NSAC said in a blog post.

It also said the addition of saturated buffers as a conservation practice “is a major step toward helping producers limit nitrate loss, which, unlike other types of nutrient runoff, has been difficult to control using traditional buffer strips.”

Click here to learn more about USDA’s conservation programs.

While in Des Moines, Vilsack also accepted the Norman E. Borlaug Medallion from the World Food Prize. WFP President Kenneth Quinn said the medallion honors USDA “for its extraordinary development and promotion of American farming for over 150 years.

“In the 10,000-year history of human agriculture, there is arguably no other organization that has done more to expand the knowledge of, and enhance the science in, food production than the USDA,” Quinn said.

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Quinn also said Vilsack is “deserving of special recognition” for his efforts, as Iowa’s governor and as U.S. agriculture secretary, to promote the World Food Prize and “especially to help inspire the next generation of young agricultural leaders.”

Vilsack also signed a memorandum of understanding between USDA and the World Food Prize to continue the USDA Wallace-Carver Fellowship Program for the next five years. The fellowships allow exceptional students who have participated in World Food Prize educational programs to take part in in research with USDA scientists at department facilities across the country.


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