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Making the match between beginning farmers and landowners

March 22, 2017


With the 2018 Farm Bill debates already well underway, a lot of attention has been paid recently to a program likely not well known outside of agricultural circles – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP is an important conservation tool that provides cost-share and rental payments that help farmers to keep marginal and highly erodible lands out of production.

The recent debate around the program has been whether or not to expand the program in the 2018 Farm Bill. On the one hand, some farmers suffering from low commodity prices would like to see CRP expanded because the payments that they would receive on idle CRP land would be higher than the current commodity prices. On the other hand, any expansion of CRP acres is likely to come with a hefty price tag – and given the current budgetary climate, that cost would likely be paid for at the expense of working lands conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Another concern, particularly for beginning farmers and farmer-advocacy groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), is that over-enrollment in CRP might make it even harder for beginning farmers to access affordable land.

The Conservation Reserve Program’s Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) was created in the 2008 Farm Bill as a way to connect retiring farmers who own CRP land to beginning farmers and ranchers looking to farm sustainably. CRP-TIP offers a special incentive of two years of extra CRP rental payments to owners of land that is currently enrolled in CRP but returning to production, who rent or sell their land to beginning, socially disadvantaged or veteran farmers or ranchers who will use sustainable grazing practices, resource-conserving cropping systems, or transition to organic production.

Pathways to Land Access 

The Center for Rural Affairs (an NSAC member) recently published a new report, Pathways to Land Access (“Pathways”), as part of a cooperative agreement with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), Dakota Rural Action, and NSAC. Pathways evaluates the usage of CRP-TIP and provides context and strategies for how to increase awareness of and participation in the program, with a focus on four key states (IA, NE, ND, SD) that have a large number of acres enrolled in CRP. Additionally, the report attempts to explain the major factors that influence CRP-TIP participation, including administrative, economic and environmental factors.

CRP-TIP is a federal farm program that creates a pathway for beginning, socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers to access land by incentivizing retiring landowners to rent or sell their expiring CRP acreage to these farmers. Pathways investigates the implementation of the program in Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota in order to better understand why the program is being used successfully in some states and less successfully in others.

Key report findings reveal several factors that affect program usage: program awareness; the existence (or lack thereof) of a strong relationship between the prospective farmer and landowner; and the overall agricultural economy.

CRP-TIP Usage

As with any federal program, one of the challenges of increasing participation in CRP-TIP has been raising awareness about the program and marketing it to eligible applicants. Pathways’ analysis of program usage in IA, NE, ND, and SD found that there was significant variability in program usage at the state and county levels, suggesting variability in how the program was marketed and understood by eligible applicants.

For example, 86 producers enrolled in CRP-TIP contracts in Nebraska, but there were only 8 contracts in South Dakota despite similar total acres of farmland enrolled in CRP in each state. The report found overall higher participation rates in CRP-TIP in Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota, but also found high variability in participation rates across counties in each state.

The wide variations in CRP-TIP usage across neighboring states seems to be explained primarily by variations in knowledge and interest of FSA field staff, though other factors certainly play a role. Not surprisingly, FSA county officers generally reported that land that was more readily convertible to commodity production was more commonly enrolled in CRP-TIP.

Key Findings

The report’s findings are based on in-depth interviews with FSA state officials, survey data collected from FSA county employees, and interviews with CRP-TIP participants. These findings reveal a great deal about program participation and implementation. The following factors were found to have the most significant effect on CRP-TIP usage:

  1. Program Knowledge: The report finds that greater program knowledge and awareness among FSA field staff and among farmers (both farmers actively seeking land and farmers wishing to retire) directly contributed to higher participation in CRP-TIP. Typically, counties with higher participation in this program conduct multiple forms of outreach to potential applicants, including: outreach through GovDelivery (FSA’s electronic newsletter), direct mailings letting landowners with expiring CRP acres know about the program, and word of mouth promotion at FSA offices and outreach events. The report also identified a troublesome barrier to increasing program awareness among farmer stakeholders – some FSA staff reported that they had been hesitant to launch broad outreach campaigns due to uncertainty about future program funding levels. After CRP-TIP was established in the 2008 Farm Bill, the program ran out of funding in 2012 due to high initial demand from CRP landowners. The program was effectively put on hold for two years until additional funding was made available upon passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.
  1. Farmer & Landowner Relationship: A common theme that arose in the interviews conducted for Pathways was difficulty in finding a potential “match” – CRP landowners reported not being able to easily find a farmer or rancher interested in buying or renting their lands through CRP-TIP, and vice versa. There seemed to be little awareness of the FSA’s online matchmaking database, TIP-Net, which FSA established to facilitate these connections. This suggests that TIP-Net is severely under-promoted, ineffective, or both. Word of mouth and personal connections were reported as the most common ways that interested beginning farmers were able to find a CRP landowner who wanted to participate in TIP.
  1. Agricultural Economy: A final factor affecting program usage is the influence of the overall agricultural economy on farmland decisions. Falling commodity prices and high CRP re-enrollment rental rates can impact landowners’ decisions to participate in the TIP program. Several officials interviewed for Pathways believed that falling commodity prices influenced landowners’ decisions to stay in farming and re-enroll their land in CRP versus renting or selling it to a new farmer through the TIP program. FSA employees also reported that the high cost of starting a farm or ranch was a frequently reported barrier for many beginning farmers interested in finding farmland through TIP.

Recommendations

The report outlines several recommended strategies that FSA can implement to increase participation in CRP-TIP, both in the states studied in the Pathways report, as well as in other states that have experienced low program usage, including:

  • Increase educational outreach about the program, particularly to disadvantaged and veterans groups;
  • Providing additional training to county staff to increase familiarity with the program;
  • Improve facilitation of the landowner and farmer “match” process and relationship development by working with community based organizations and Landlink programs to connect interested parties; and
  • Standardize TIP contract tracking at the county and state levels to facilitate communication about program participation and overall funding availability.

CRP-TIP is one of a handful of programs whose funding will expire next year along with the expiration of 2014 Farm Bill. These so-called “stranded programs” will require additional funding from Congress through the 2018 Farm Bill in order to continue operating.

As part of the ongoing 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, NSAC – along with the Center for Rural Affairs, Dakota Rural Action, and our other member organizations across the country – will advocate for more funding and policy improvements for CRP-TIP to encourage conservation activities on expiring CRP land while simultaneously supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Click here to download a copy of Pathways to Land Access.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill


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