May 11, 2016
Healthy soils are the underpinning of the agricultural economy. On the most marginal, highly erodible lands, soils are best cared for by keeping them covered in grasses or trees year-round and avoiding agricultural production. On more productive fields, soils can be enhanced through the use of sustainable farming tools like conservation buffers – riparian buffers, grassed waterways, and contour grass strips – which help to prevent sediment and nutrients from leeching out of the ground and polluting waterways.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a variety of programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), to improve soils and prevent erosion, protect water quality, and conserve wildlife habitats on agricultural lands. Through cost-share and rental payments, CRP encourages farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production, and also to install targeted conservation practices on working lands.
Last week, USDA announced that more than 500,000 acres had been enrolled in CRP during the program’s 49th sign up period. According to USDA’s press release, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers CRP, “received 26,000 offers to enroll more than 1.8 million acres during the general enrollment period, and over 4,600 offers to enroll more than one million acres in the new CRP Grasslands program,” which has a cap of 2 million acres.
Of those offers, FSA was able to accept 411,000 acres through the general sign up (23 percent acceptance rate) and 101,000 acres through the grasslands enrollment option (5 percent acceptance rate).
Producers have also enrolled more than 364,000 acres in 2016 through the CRP continuous enrollment process. Because this option continues to sign up conservation buffers and other targeted practices continues throughout the entire year, the total acreage enrolled through this process by the end of 2016 will likely double.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has long supported the continuous enrollment of targeted conservation buffers, having championed its creation as part of the 1990 Farm Bill and pushed for its implementation several years later. NSAC is also supportive of the grassland enrollment option, which helps producers maintain and enhance conservation cover on grazing lands; and we commend USDA for focusing the enrollment on high priority issues. NSAC helped create the grassland option in the 2014 Farm Bill, and following the bill’s passage, encouraged FSA to prioritize native grasslands, acres expiring from CRP, and offers by beginning farmers and ranchers.
According to USDA, more than 70 percent of the 101,000 grassland acres are diverse native grasslands under threat of conversion, and more than 97 percent have a new, veteran or underserved farmer or rancher as a primary producer. No information has yet been provided on how many of the grassland acres accepted were expiring CRP acres.
The 2014 Farm Bill established an overall CRP acreage cap of 24 million acres for fiscal year (FY) 2017. As of March, total enrollment in the program was at 23.8 million acres, though 1.7 million acres are set to expire on October 1, with another 2.5 million acres expiring a year after that.
While the current total enrollment comes in under the overall acreage cap, USDA will continue to enroll producers through the continuous sign up. Last year, producers enrolled more than 860,000 acres through the continuous sign up. USDA will also continue to accept offers for grassland enrollments, and will conduct another grasslands ranking period later this year.
Interest in whole-field, general sign-up CRP tends to fluctuate with price of commodity crops. When crop prices are high, fewer producers tend to enroll or re-enroll in CRP; when crop prices are low, more producers see CRP as a worthwhile alternative.
Heading into the next farm bill debate, NSAC believes we should start thinking more creatively about how to preserve the long-term viability of the program in the face of market fluctuations. We will continue to advocate for using the continuous sign up to target prime wildlife habitat and environmentally sensitive acres, such as those along waterways. It may also be time to seriously consider allowing for permanent easements under CRP to ensure that environmental benefits are long-lasting. In the coming year, some hard thinking will be required to develop practical options for using limited taxpayer dollars to maximize environmental benefits.
Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment