May 14, 2010
On May 14, USDA issued an Interim Final Rule to implement a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) transition option provided in the 2008 Farm Bill for retiring landowners to transfer land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Sign-up for the program, named the Transition Incentives Program (TIP), begins on May 17, 2010. The Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers the program, has issued on a TIP Fact Sheet.
Under TIP, landowners or operators, who are in the process of retiring from agriculture and whose CRP contract is coming to an end, can receive two years of additional CRP rental payments after the contract expires, if the land is transferred to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher. In turn the new farmer or rancher must agree to use sustainable or organic grazing, crop production or mixed cropping-grazing systems to bring the land into production. The land must either be sold or be under contract to be sold to the beginning or minority farmer or rancher or be leased to the new farmer or rancher under a long-term (at least 5 years) lease agreement.
The CRP TIP also allows the new farmer or rancher, in the year before the CRP contract expires, to begin the establishment of conservation-related improvements on the land and/or start the transition to organic farming certification. The new farmer or rancher must have a conservation plan for the sustainable or organic system, which can be done with assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. In addition, USDA is required to provide the new farmer or rancher with the opportunity to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program as soon as the land is transferred and to re-enroll in the Continuous CRP any conservation buffer strips on the land.
The 2008 Farm Bill mandated that the total acreage in the CRP be decreased from 39 million acres to 32 million acres. NSAC championed the CRP TIP to increase the opportunities for new farmers and ranchers to access land and to ensure that some of the conservation benefits of having the land in the CRP would be retained with sustainable and organic systems when the land returned to agricultural production. We were concerned when USDA failed to implement the CRP transition option in 2008 and 2009, when CRP contracts expired on millions of acres. Therefore, we are pleased to see that the Interim Final Rule for TIP provides that some of the CRP land whose CRP contracts expired after the June 18, 2008 enactment of the Farm Bill is still eligible for enrollment in the new TIP until September 30, 2010.
The most important thing now is for FSA to work hard to publicize and do outreach on the incentives program. FSA has the information and authority to contact landowners with soon to expire CRP contracts, as well as access to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers through FSA loan programs and other FSA programs. It is critical that FSA work in cooperation with NSAC member groups and other interested organizations to match up CRP landowners and operators eligible and willing to participate in TIP with beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers seeking to start new operations or add land to existing operations.
Incentives to assist new farmers and ranchers in gaining access to land in the coming years are critically important. The 2007 Census of Agriculture found that the number of agricultural operators 75 years and older grew by 20 percent from 2002, while the number of operators under 25 years old decreased by 30 percent. The future of many of the nation’s rural communities will depend on the next generation of farm families having access to land and farming that land in a way that is sustainable and consistent with conservation goals.
With significant acreage in already expired CRP contracts eligible for TIP enrollment and with another 15 million acres of CRP acres in contracts set to expire between 2010 and 2012, FSA should do all it can to ensure that beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and willing CRP landowners and operators are able to find each other.
FSA will be taking comments on the interim rule for the program until July 13, 2010. NSAC will be submitting comments and also will be watching closely over the next two months to see if improvements can be made to TIP outreach and promotion.