Conservation Reserve Program


Program Basics

The primary purposes of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources by temporarily removing land from agricultural production. Under the CRP general sign-up provision, USDA offers annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to farmers to establish long-term conserving cover, primarily grasses and trees, on land that has been in row crop production. USDA periodically holds general sign-ups and land is bid into the program on a competitive basis with ranking based on environmental benefits and cost.

The CRP also has a continuous signup provision, the CCRP (sometimes referred to as the CRP buffer initiative), which provides payments to farmers to establish riparian buffers, grass waterways, contour grass strips, and other specific partial field conservation practices on land in agricultural production. Farmers and landowners may enroll land on which those partial field practices will be adopted at any time, hence the term “continuous” sign-up.

In addition, USDA may enter into a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) agreement with a state, under which the state provides funding, in addition to the federal CRP funding, to pay farmers to address targeted conservation issues within the state.

All CRP contracts between USDA and agricultural landowners are for 10 to 15 years, with the longer agreements for land planted to trees. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers the CRP, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) providing technical land eligibility determinations, conservation planning and practice implementation. State forestry agencies also provide some technical support.

2008 Farm Bill Changes

The total CRP acreage cap was lowered from 39.2 million acres through 2009 as provided in the 2002 Farm Bill to 32 million acres for 2010 through 2012. There are no acreage limits imposed on the CCRP or the CREP program components within the overall 32 million acres.  Based on predictions about renewal rates on general sign-up contracts that expire in the coming years, it expected that there will be no constraints on CCRP or CREP sign-ups within the new 32 million acre cap.

Generally, no more than 25 percent of a county’s cropland can enroll in the CRP and WRP.  The 2008 Farm Bill includes new authority for the USDA Secretary to waive this cropland limit, if the county agrees, in order to enroll cropland in the CCRP or CREP.  In addition, the Managers’ Statement for the Farm Bill directs USDA to update rental rates and use incentive payments for all CCRP practices to make the program more competitive and more economically viable for producers.

The Farm Bill modifies the land eligibility requirements by:

  • including highly erodible cropland land cropped in four out of six years prior to 2008;
  • providing that alfalfa and other multi-year grasses and legumes in a rotation practice, approved by USDA, are agricultural commodities making the land eligible for CRP enrollment;
  • clarifying that alfalfa grown in approved rotation practice can be considered an agricultural commodity and can be used to fulfill the requirement that eligible land be cropped in four out of six previous years; and
  • including land that was devoted to commercial pond-raised aquaculture in any 1 year during 2002 through 2007 as farmed wetlands eligible for CRP enrollment.

The 2008 Farm Bill includes a new “local preference” criterion among the ranking criteria for bids to enroll in the CRP.  This measure gives priority to an offer from a landowner or operator who is a resident of the county, or a contiguous county, provided that the land offered for enrollment has at least equivalent conservation benefits to land as competing offers from non-local landowners.

The 2008 Farm Bill amends provisions that allow certain commercial uses of CRP land with a reduction in the CRP rental payment:

  • Managed harvesting, including harvesting of biomass, is permitted on CRP acreage subject to vegetation management and timing requirements;
  • Routine grazing, or prescribed grazing for the control of invasive species, is permitted with appropriate vegetative management;
  • Installation of wind turbines is permitted subject to vegetative and wildlife management requirements; and
  • Dryland crop production and grazing are allowed on CREP acreage where the CREP is intended to address declining water resources.

The Managers’ Statement to the Farm Bill directs USDA to review the rules for routine grazing and to consult with NRCS State Technical Committees to develop site-specific management plans for grazing.  The Managers Statement also direct USDA to allow limited grazing of adjacent field buffers enrolled in the CRP while crop residue is gleaned from an adjacent field not enrolled in the CRP, without a reduction in the CRP rental payment for the field buffer.  The new bill also provides $100 million in cost-share payments from fiscal years 2009-2012 for the thinning of trees, windbreaks, shelterbelts, and wildlife corridors to improve resources on the land.

The 2008 Farm Bill adds a new requirement that USDA conduct an annual survey of county average dryland and irrigated cash rental rates for pasture and cropland in all counties of a state with 20,000 acres or more of cropland or pastureland. USDA must post estimates of county rental rates from the survey on the USDA website.

The new Farm Bill also expands the purposes of the CRP to include issues raised by state, regional and national conservation initiatives, including State Wildlife Action Plans, the National Fish Habitat Action Plan, and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

The 2008 Farm Bill also adds a new transition option for the transfer of CRP land from retiring farmers or ranchers to beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.  This CRP Transition Option is described in greater detail in a separate section of this Farm Bill Guide.
Note also that Section 15301 of Title XV of the Farm Bill amends the Internal Revenue Code Section 1402(a)(1) to exclude CRP payments from self-employment income for purposes of the Self-Employment Contributions Act tax for persons who are receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits, effective for CRP payments made after December 31, 2007.

Key Aspects of the CRP

1. CRP General Sign-Up

Farmers can apply for CRP general sign-up enrollment only during designated sign-up periods.  USDA accepts land into the CRP based on a competitive bidding process.  For information on upcoming general sign-ups, farmers should contact their local FSA office. A general sign-up is expected sometime in 2010.

Eligible Producers – To be eligible for CRP enrollment, a producer must have owned or operated the land for at least 12 months prior to close of the CRP sign-up period, unless:

  • The new owner acquired the land due to the previous owner’s death;
  • The ownership change occurred due to foreclosure where the owner exercised a timely right or redemption in accordance with state law; or
  • The circumstances of the acquisition present adequate assurance to FSA that the new owner did not acquire the land for the purpose of placing it in CRP.

Eligible Land — To be eligible for placement in CRP, land must be either:

  • Cropland (including field margins) that is planted or considered planted to an agricultural commodity 4 of the previous 6 crop years from 2002 to 2007 , and which is physically and legally capable of being planted in a normal manner to an agricultural commodity; or
  • Certain marginal pastureland that is enrolled in the Water Bank Program or suitable for use as a riparian buffer or for similar water quality purposes.

Ranking CRP Land Enrollment Offers – Offers for CRP contracts are ranked according to the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI).  FSA collects data for each of the EBI factors based on the relative environmental benefits for the land offered.  Each eligible offer is ranked in comparison to all other offers and selections made from that ranking.  FSA currently uses the following EBI factors to assess the environmental benefits for the land offered:

  • Wildlife habitat benefits resulting from covers on contract acreage;
  • Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff, and leaching;
  • On-farm benefits from reduced erosion;
  • Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period;
  • Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion; and
  • Cost.

General CRP Contracts — CRP contracts generally require farmers to establish and maintain the conservation practices specified in the contract for ten years.  For conservation practices such as tree planting that may require more time, the contracts run for 15 years.

CRP Payments — FSA provides CRP participants with annual rental payments, including certain incentive payments, and cost-share assistance:

  • Rental Payments: FSA bases rental rates on the relative productivity of the soils within each county and the average dryland cash rent or cash-rent equivalent. The maximum CRP rental rate for each offer is calculated in advance of enrollment. Producers may offer land at that rate or offer a lower rental rate to increase the likelihood that their offer will be accepted.
  • Maintenance Incentive Payments: CRP annual rental payments may include an additional amount up to $5 per acre per year as an incentive to perform certain maintenance obligations.
  • Cost-share Assistance: FSA provides cost-share assistance to participants who establish approved cover on eligible cropland. The cost-share assistance cannot exceed 50 percent of the participants’ costs in establishing approved practices.

2. Continuous CRP (CCRP) Sign-Up

Farmers may apply to their local FSA office for enrollment in the CCRP at any time. Offers that meet eligibility requirements are automatically accepted and are not subject to competitive bidding. The CCRP allows farmers to enroll partial fields, or occasionally whole fields, in conjunction with working agricultural land.

Eligible Producers and Land – Eligibility is the same as for regular CRP, except that land within an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-designated public wellhead area may also be eligible for enrollment on a continuous basis.

Eligible Practices — The CCRP pays farmers to implement conservation practices that improve the conservation performance of agricultural working land. Currently, these practices include:

  • riparian buffers
  • wildlife habitat buffers
  • wetland buffers
  • filter strips
  • wetland restoration
  • grass waterways
  • shelterbelts
  • living snow fences
  • contour grass strips
  • salt tolerant vegetation, and
  • shallow water areas for wildlife

CCRP Payments – In addition to cost share assistance to establish practices and annual rental payments, FSA provides certain CCRP continuous sign-up participants with special incentives, including a bonus of up to 20 percent on rental rates for windbreaks, filter strips, grass waterways, and riparian buffers, a 10 percent rental rate bonus for land located in EPA-designated wellhead protection areas, and upfront sign-up bonus of $100 per acre and 40 percent bonus on cost share assistance for some but not all eligible CCRP practices. It is possible FSA will extend the bonus payments to additional practices, in keeping with the Statement of the Managers of the 2008 Farm Bill encouraging the agency to do so.

State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) – In January 2008, USDA launched a new administrative initiative as a continuous CRP practice called State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE). Under SAFE, projects are developed to benefit threatened, endangered and other high-priority species. Unlike CREP (see below), the SAFE initiative does not require an agreement between USDA and a state but does generally involve state or tribal agencies and conservation groups working with USDA to develop projects. But like the CREP, SAFE projects are limited geographically. Farmers should contact their local FSA office to for information about SAFE projects in their locality. Farmers enroll land under SAFE project contracts with similar terms to CCRP contracts.

3. Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)

The CREP is based on partnership agreements between the USDA and state or tribal governments and may also involve non-governmental organizations that provide funding or conservation services. CREP agreements address high-priority conservation issues of both local and national significance, such as impacts to water supplies or loss of critical habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife species or fish populations. Each CREP has its geographic limitations, acreage cap, and specified conservation practices. Generally farmers who meet the eligibility requirements of a particular CREP can enroll any time until the acreage requirements of the CREP have been met.

Eligible Land — CREP agreements are limited to specific geographic areas and to farmland where specific conservation practices are suitable to dealing with the conservation issues identified in the CRP. Farmers should contact their local county FSA office to determine if land in their state and county is involved in a CREP.

CREP Payments — Like regular CRP, CREP contracts are from 10 to 15 years. CREP participants receive the federal annual rental payment, maintenance incentive payment, and up to 50 percent cost-share. In addition, a CREP generally includes a sign-up incentive for participants to install specific practices. State and tribal governments and non-governmental organizations may also provide additional payments. For example, many states offer to pay for permanent easements on riparian or wetland buffers or other practices or environmentally sensitive land of specific relevance to the particular CREP project.

The CRP was reauthorized by Sections 2101-2111 of the 2008 Farm Bill, which amends Section 1231 of the Food Security Act of 1985. The CRP is codified at 16 U.S.C. Section 3831.

Funding

The 2008 Farm Bill requires lowering the CRP total acreage cap from the 39.2 million acres authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill to a total of 32 million acres starting on October 1, 2009. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the revised cost of the CRP as shown in the chart below.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Funding

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

5 year cost

10 yr cost

$1,931 M

$1,878 M

$1,895 M

$1,895 M

$2,063 M

$9,662 M

$20,852 M

Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2008 Farm Bill for this program to be provided through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation. However, Congress does at times pass subsequent appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program at less than provided by the farm bill in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program. Therefore, despite its “mandatory” status, the funding level for a given year could be less than the farm bill dictates should the Appropriations Committee decide to raid the farm bill to fund other programs under its jurisdiction.

Implementation Basics

In June 2009, the FSA issued an interim final rule to implement the following changes to the program made by the 2008 Farm Bill: (1) changes to the definition of farmed wetlands, including the measure to include commercial aquaculture ponds in farmed wetlands; (2) thinning of trees to improve the condition of resources; and (3) amendments to gross income requirements. Environmental review of these changes was limited to an environmental assessment.

Changes not covered by this interim final rule include: (1) County acreage limits; (2) Cropping history; (3) Eligible land; (4) Haying and grazing; (5) Acceptability of offers – provisions to allow ‘‘local preference’’ as a consideration; (6) Payment limitation; (7) incentives for Indian tribes; (8) Incentives for pollinators; and (9) the CRP Transition Option incentives for beginning, limited resource, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Note that the CRP Transition Option is addressed in detail in another section of this Grassroots Guide.

The FSA determined to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for changes not covered by the interim final rule.  On February 19, 2010, FSA issued a notice of a public comment period for the Draft CRP SEIS , with comments due on April 5, 2010.

The USDA Secretary announced in February that FSA will conduct a general sign-up for CRP in 2010, the first since 2006. USDA estimates that CRP contracts on about 4.4 million acres will expire in September 2010 with another 4.4 million acres expiring September 2011. The 2010 general sign-up will not be officially announced until completion of the SEIS and the interim final rule for the CRP provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill which were not covered by interim final rule issued in June 2009.

Farmers and landowners may continue to place eligible land into the CCRP. States may also continue to make proposals to FSA for new CREP projects. Farmers and landowners with land in the CRP whose contracts are expiring in coming years will likely be given options to automatically renew those contracts if they are of high environmental value. Farmers and landowners with whole fields or whole farms in CRP who are exiting the program have the option to retain conservation buffers in the program through the CCRP. For those putting land back into production, options are available under the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Grasslands Reserve Program to retain many conservation benefits while resuming agricultural activities.

Additional Resources

FSA website for the Conservation Reserve Program

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