July 22, 2013
On Monday, July 22, USDA announced it is awarding new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts for 1.7 million acres starting on October 1. There are currently 26.9 million acres enrolled in the program, but on October 1, 3.3 million acres are scheduled to leave the reserve. Hence with today’s additions, it brings the total to about 25.3 million acres, the lowest total since 1988 when the program was in its infancy and the farm crisis loomed large.
Under current law, the maximum permissible enrollment is 32 million acres. In the Senate-passed 2013 Farm Bill that cap would decline to 25 million acres, whereas the companion House-passed bill would decline to 24 million acres.
The new 1.7 million acres were selected based on environmental benefit criteria out of a possible 1.9 million acres that was offered by nearly 28,000 landowners. USDA has not yet said how many of the new contracts are actually re-enrollments of expiring contracts, but the assumption would be that the majority of them are re-enrollments. USDA has also not yet released the state-by-state breakdown for the new enrollments, though presumably the majority are in the CRP heavy Great Plains states.
Last year’s general sign-up enrolled 3.9 million acres out of a total 4.5 million acres that had been offered. In 2012, though, nearly twice as many CRP acres were expiring compared to 2013. The CRP declined from over 29 million acres to less than 27 million acres this past year, and now, with today’s announcement it appears it will drop again in the direction of 25 million acres.
High crop prices and soaring land and rental values are dictating the decline in program acreage, with more money to be made in cultivation than in collecting government rental checks for land retirement.
USDA also announced that despite a very late start to this year’s continuous CRP (CCRP) sign-up due to farm bill expiration during the last three months of last calendar year, new targeted conservation buffer and habitat enrollments so far this year exceed 370,000 acres. Last year’s total was 575,000 acres. Additional CCRP enrollments in August and September could bring the total CRP acreage at the start of the new fiscal year on October 1 to 25.4 million or more acres.
Total CCRP acres are now 5.8 million acres. Since 2007 however, over 1.3 million acres exited the CCRP and were not re-enrolled. Over the same period of time, 3.5 million acres were enrolled, a mix of re-enrollments and new enrollments.
Of the current CCRP 5.8 million acre total, approximately 909,000 acres are in filter strips, 855,000 acres in riparian buffers, 132,000 acres in grass waterways, and 230,000 acres in windbreaks, shelterbelts, contour grass strips, or living snow fences. In addition, there are approximately 700,000 acres in wildlife enhancements, 247,000 acres in upland bird habitat buffers, 232,000 acres in duck nesting habitat, 160,000 acres in marginal pastureland buffers, 108,000 acres in permanent wildlife habitat, and 33,000 acres in shallow water for wildlife. Also enrolled in the CCRP are approximately 604,000 acres in restored wetlands and 339,000 acres in restored farmable wetlands and uplands.
The new farm bill should be ensuring the wise investment of taxpayer resources by focusing an increased share of the CRP for targeted buffer and habitat enrollments under the CCRP and on getting much longer term protection through long-term or permanent easements. Sadly, however, those types of “better conservation bang for the buck” changes were not included in the pending new House and Senate farm bills, in part because while they would save a lot of money over the long haul, they have a higher upfront investment cost. Hopefully at some point in the future Congress will find a way to change its current “penny wise but pound foolish” rules and enact reforms that improve the quality and duration of the conservation and environmental benefits of the program.