March 10, 2015
Farmers can protect the environment by placing small portions of their farms in permanent vegetation designed to control or intercept soil, nutrients, and pesticides and to slow wind and snow. Often referred to generically as conservation buffers, these targeted environmental practices can be in-field (e.g., contour grass strips), at the edge of fields (e.g., field borders), or along water bodies (e.g., riparian buffers). The best buffer strategies can remove 50 to 75 percent of nutrients and sediment from water bodies.
Buffers also provide food, cover, and shelter for some types of wildlife and also stabilize streams and reduce water temperature, benefiting fish and other aquatic species. And when used in conjunction with advanced farming practices like conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, buffer and related partial field vegetative practices help farmers become sustainable, environmentally and economically.
Farmers interested in installing conservation buffers have the option of enrolling these small acreages in the farm bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through what is known as the Continuous CRP (CCRP) through which they can receive rental payments and cost share payments on that land.
It is called continuous because, unlike general CRP sign-ups — which are available to producers only on an occasional basis — the CCRP is open to any qualifying land at any time of the year, year in and year out. In addition to buffer enrollments in CCRP, there are also special federal-state initiatives known as Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs (or CREPs) and special wildlife habitat enrollments known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) that are also part of CCRP.
As of the end of 2014, slightly more than 6 million acres of farmland were enrolled in the combined CCRP in 10 or 15 year rental contracts.
Letter to FSA in Support of Robust CCRP
In a letter to USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) on March 10, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) joined forces with National Grain and Feed Association and 13 other farm, processor, water quality, and conservation organizations urging an even more robust CCRP in the future.
The letter states: “As we approach the 30th anniversary of CRP, FSA should refocus its efforts to meet the goals of today’s CRP to enroll cropland and marginal pastureland that benefits water quality, wildlife habitat, air quality and reduces soil erosion, all of which would be strengthened through greater use of continuous sign-up and CREP enrollments.”
Signing the letter were grain and oilseed processor groups including the National Grain and Feed, American Feed Industry, Corn Refiners, National Oilseed Processors, and North American Millers’ associations, farm groups including NSAC and the National Farmers Union, water quality agencies including the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and conservation groups including American Rivers, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Gulf Restoration Network and Water Environment Federation.
The letter specifically encourages FSA to to reserve at least a third of the total 24 million acre CRP for CCRP, including CREP and SAFE, to extend special incentives currently available for certain continuous sign-up practices to the full range of partial field enrollment options, and to notify annually all landowners with expiring CRP contracts of the option of keeping conservation buffers in place via the CCRP while returning the main portions of farm fields back to production.
The 2014 Farm Bill capped the total CRP at 24 million acres nationwide, down more than 10 million acres from the acres enrolled at the height of the program. As FSA considers its implementation options under the more restrictive cap, it becomes more important to carefully plan to ensure sufficient acreage is available each year for the targeted, high pay-off conservation buffer enrollments. There is sufficient acreage available for enrollment going forward to aim for an enhanced CCRP while still conducting occasional general sign-ups, but a reservation of acreage for the CCRP is now needed to ensure its future.
In the face of critical agro-envionmental problems, conservation buffer enrollments in CRP produce a big bang for the taxpayer investment. Targeted, partial field enrollments dedicated to specific conservation practices allow land to remain in production while reducing water quality impacts and creating wildlife habitat and healthier streams.
Even stronger environmental results will occur when CCRP is used in conjunction with the Conservation Stewardship Program. Through CSP, farmers can receive financial assistance for cover cropping, conservation tillage, diversified rotation, and advanced nutrient and pest management strategies that, when combined with conservation buffers, can improve soil health and productivity while minimizing polluted run-off from fields. CRP contracts run for 10 or 15 years, while CSP contracts are on a five year, renewable continual improvement basis.
CRP Grasslands Letter to FSA
In another letter sent to FSA this week, eight national organizations, including NSAC, delivered recommendations to FSA regarding how to prioritize applications for the new grasslands acreage option within CRP. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized USDA to enroll up to two million acres of grasslands in CRP, so long as those acres contain forbs or shrubland for which grazing is the primary use, are located in an area historically dominated by grasslands, and could provide habitat for animal and plant populations of significant ecological value if the land is retained in its current use or restored to a natural condition.
In the letter, the groups urge FSA to act quickly to implement the grasslands provision in a way that makes the best use of this limited acreage and maximizes the environmental benefits. In particular, the groups argue that FSA should prioritize expiring CRP acres and native grasslands, as well as grasslands at high risk of conversion, grasslands the provide habitat for high-priority wildlife species, and grasslands that surround wetlands.