June 5, 2014
On Tuesday, June 4, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that farmers, ranchers and landowners can now enroll sensitive land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the program’s continuous sign-up options (CCRP). These are some of the most environmentally beneficial enrollments in the program, aiding efforts to improve water quality and habitat by creating conservation buffers and other partial field conservation practices that provide long-term benefits.
USDA also announced the availability of funding to provide financial incentives to retiring farmers, ranchers, and landowners enrolled in CRP if they opt to transfer a portion of their land currently enrolled in CRP to beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran farmers through the CRP Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP). Through this program, landowners with expiring CRP contracts are able to receive an additional two years of CRP payments on land that is sold or leased to a beginning, socially disadvantaged or veteran farmer. Whereas CRP contracts are only in place for 10 to 15 years, CRP-TIP offers a critical opportunity to ensure that the environmental benefits gained are not lost when the land returns to production. Participating farmers must develop and implement a conservation plan on the land that had been covered by CRP.
Additionally, when the farmer takes over the land through ownership or long-term lease, they have the option to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which are working lands programs that provide resources to help them establish sustainable farming practices. Farmers also have the option of re-enrolling portions of the land into CRP through the “continuous sign-up” CRP, which is for conservation buffer practices such as contour grass strips, riparian buffers, or grassed waterways.
NSAC Press Comment
In response to the USDA announcement, NSAC issued a statement urging USDA to set a goal of at least 500,000 acres per year for the next five years for conintuous sign-up CRP enrollments. We also encouraged enhanced outreach by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service to farmers and landowners with expiring CRP acres on the new, improved options under the 2014 Farm Bill to enroll those acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program. The statement also commended USDA for re-opening the CRP-TIP option, commenting that “we suspect the program wil pick up right where it left off, with a very high degree of interest in the farming community.”
Sign Up and Funding
Sign up for both CCRP and CRP-TIP will begin June 9.
There is no limit to CCRP enrollments other than the overall acreage cap for CRP in total. Currently there are nearly 6 million CCRP acres enrolled out of a total CRP enrollment of close to 26 million acres. NSAC hopes the CCRP total will come close to 8 million acres by the end of this farm bill cycle.
CRP-TIP was one of the so-called “stranded programs” whose funding expired with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill back in the fall of 2012. This program actually ran out of money prior to the expiration of the Farm Bill since demand for the program outstripped available funding. Not only was there not enough funding provided by the 2008 Farm Bill to keep CRP-TIP active for the full farm bill cycle, Congress’ extension of the old farm bill by an additional year left CRP-TIP and many other innovative farm bill programs stranded with no renewed funding. The demand for this program is strong. Unfortunately, it has not been available for the last two annual classes of CRP retirements.
And while NSAC is pleased the the new farm bill provides an increase in funding, from $25 to $33 million over the next five years, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that this funding will only last a couple years, due to the large number of CRP contracts expiring over the next five years.
Almost 9 million acres of environmentally sensitive land are set to expire from CRP over the next five years if contracts are not renewed. CRP-TIP increases the likelihood that the ecological integrity of this land will be protected, while simultaneously offering an opportunity for beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran farmers to get a start on the land.
Speaking to low numbers of new farmers transitioning into agriculture as well as the very real challenge of securing access to land, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in USDA’s press release, “the average age of farmers and ranchers in the United States is 58 years, and twice as many are 65 or older compared to those 45 or younger. The cost of buying land is one of the biggest barriers to many interested in getting started in agriculture. The Transition Incentives Program is very useful as we work to help new farmers and ranchers get started.”
Need for Increased Program Outreach
While farmers and ranchers across the country have been waiting for over two years for the TIP program to be restored, there are additional steps that are needed in order to make sure that the program is truly able to meet the needs of beginning, socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and connect them in the most effective way possible to a potential CRP landowner looking to sell or lease their land.
First, it is imperative that FSA engage in strong communications and outreach about the program, including detailed letters to all CRP landowners with contracts that expire in the next few fiscal years. CRP- TIP can be improved by reaching out to landowners with expiring contracts as far in advance as possible, preferably more than a year before the end of their contract. Targeted outreach should also be directed to returning military veterans, since that group was added as an eligible applicant group by the 2014 Farm Bill.
As part of that outreach effort, NSAC also urges FSA to improve TipNet — a database that seeks to connect landowners with retiring CRP contracts with beginning and underserved farmers looking for farmland — so that it reaches and is utilized by more retiring farmers. TipNet has the potential to be a great resource, but those seeking land utilize the site significantly more than those wishing to sell or lease their land through CRP-TIP. Clearly, more outreach to landowners is needed in order to make this resource more effective.
NSAC also encourages a major outreach effort to current CRP landowners with expiring contracts in the coming years to alert them to the opportunity of enrolling land in the continuous sign-up options even as they return major parts of the farm to production. That outreach effort should also inform landowners of the enhanced opportunity under the terms of the 2014 Farm Bill to transition land from the CRP to long-term contracts under the Conservation Stewardship Program, to help maximize conservation values as land is put back into production.
Read the USDA announcement here.