Conservation Reserve Program

Important Update:

Please note that the Grassroots Guide has not yet been updated to reflect changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill, which was passed and signed into law in December 2018. We are in the process of updating the Guide and expect to publish an updated version in the spring of 2019. In the meantime, please use this guide for basic information about programs and important resources and links for more information, but check with USDA for any relevant program changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill. Also, check out our blog series covering highlights from the new farm bill. 

Taking environmentally sensitive land out of production and establishing long-term ground cover 

In some parts of the country, marginal, highly erodible lands are not ideal for agricultural production – it’s better for the long-term health of the soil to keep them covered with grass or trees year-round. In more productive fields, conservation buffers – like riparian buffers, grassed waterways, and contour grass strips – are often needed to prevent sediment and nutrients from polluting water bodies. The primary purpose of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is to conserve and improve soil, protect water quality, and provide wildlife habitat by establishing long-term cover, primarily grasses and trees, on highly erodible land or land in need of conservation buffers that has previously been in row crop production. In exchange for cost-share and rental payments, farmers remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant resource-conserving land cover to protect soil, water, and wildlife habitat.

Program Basics

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers CRP, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) overseeing land eligibility determinations, conservation planning, and implementation on the ground. State forestry agencies also provide technical support to farmers enrolling newly forested land in the program.

FSA enrolls most CRP acres during periodic “general sign-ups,” through which land is bid into the program on a competitive basis and ranked using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). General sign-ups occur periodically, not necessarily every year, at special times announced by USDA.

Currently, FSA uses the following EBI factors, which can change over time:

  • Wildlife habitat benefits
  • Water quality benefits
  • On-farm soil-retention benefits
  • Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period
  • Air quality benefits
  • Cost

CRP also has a continuous signup option, the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP), which pays farmers to install partial field conservation practices, primarily conservation buffers or wildlife habitat. Farmers and landowners may enroll such land at any time rather than waiting for specific sign-up periods. Unlike general sign-ups, there is no bidding and ranking; the land is enrolled automatically if it meets the eligibility criteria. CCRP eligible practices include riparian buffers, wildlife habitat buffers, wetland buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, grass waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, salt tolerant vegetation, and shallow water areas for wildlife. To learn more about these practices and what they look like on the land, visit the NRCS website.

In addition to CRP and CCRP, USDA may enter into a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) agreement with a state, under which the state and USDA together pay farmers to address targeted conservation issues identified by local, state, or tribal governments or non-governmental organizations.

Lastly, the 2014 Farm Bill reserves 2 million CRP acres for grassland enrollments, through which ranchers maintain and enhance conservation cover on grazing lands. Apart from the requirement that the land be in grass cover, all other CRP eligibility criteria are the same. Grassland offers are ranked according to a number of criteria, including the type of grassland (e.g. is it a diverse, native grassland), the conversion threat, the extent to which the enrollment will conserve threatened or endangered species, whether the land is enrolled in an expiring CRP contract, and whether the primary producers is a new, veteran or underserved farmer or rancher.

All types of CRP contracts are for either 10 or 15 years, with the longer 15-year agreements intended for tree plantings. At the end of a contract, landowners have the option of re-enrolling for another term. As with initial enrollments, whole field and grassland re-enrollments are competitive, whereas partial field CCRP re-enrollments are automatic.

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

  • Rental Payments: FSA bases rental rates on the productivity of the soils within each county and the average dryland cash rent. The maximum rental rate for each offer is calculated in advance of enrollment in the program. Producers may offer land at that rate or offer a lower rental rate to increase the likelihood that their offer will be accepted.
  • Cost-share Assistance: FSA provides up to 50 percent cost-share to establish the appropriate cover on the land.
  • Incentive Payments: USDA may make additional payments of up to 150 percent of the total cost of thinning and other practices to improve the condition of resources, promote forest management, or enhance wildlife habitat. USDA also provides bonuses 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 wellhead protection areas, and upfront sign-up bonuses of $150 per acre and 40 percent cost-share assistance for some eligible CCRP practices. 

CREP participants receive the annual rental payment, certain incentive payments, and up to 50 percent cost-share. CREP generally includes a sign-up incentive as well for participants to install specific practices.

Generally, no more than 25 percent of a county’s cropland can be enrolled in CRP and federal wetland easements at any given time. USDA can waive this limit in order to enroll cropland in CCRP or CREP, if the county agrees.

The 2014 Farm Bill includes three transition options for expiring CRP land. First, within the 2 million-acre reservation for grassland enrollments, expiring CRP acres are prioritized; the land will remain in CRP but economic use of the land for grazing and haying is greatly expanded. Second, it allows producers with expiring CRP land to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program in the final year of their CRP contract, so long as no double payments are made. Third, it provides two years of extra rental payments to owners of expiring CRP land who rent or sell their land to a beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran producer who will practice conservation on the land through the Transition Incentives Program.


To be eligible to enroll in CRP, a producer must have owned or operated the land for at least 12 months preceding the first year of the contract period, unless:

  • The new owner acquired the land due to the previous owner’s death;
  • The ownership change occurred due to a foreclosure; or
  • FSA is otherwise satisfied that the new owner did not acquire the land for the purpose of placing it in CRP.

 To be eligible for CRP, land must be:

  • Highly erodible cropland that is planted or considered planted in 4 of the previous 6 crop years, and that can be planted in a normal manner; or
  • Marginal pasture that is suitable for use as a riparian buffer or for similar habitat or water quality purposes; or
  • Ecologically significant grasslands that contain forbs or shrubs for grazing; or
  • A farmable wetland and related buffers.

For CREP, agreements are limited to specific geographic areas and to farmland where specific conservation practices can address conservation issues identified by the CREP project. Farmers should contact their county FSA office to determine if land in their county is involved in a CREP.

The Program in Action

CRP has helped protect tens of millions of acres of environmentally sensitive farmland over the 30 years that the program has been in operation. Nearly 24 million acres are enrolled in CRP as of 2016.

CRP has been used to:

  • Plant native prairie and trees on marginal land, increasing wildlife populations and enhancing water quality and flood control;
  • Establish longer lasting meadows of native wildflowers to support pollinators and other wildlife populations;
  • Restore farmable wetlands and develop nesting habitat in areas deemed as the most critical waterfowl areas; and
  • Generate indirect benefits, such as opportunities for local students to learn about conservation and natural resources.

Read more about how CRP has helped conserve environmentally sensitive land across the country:

How to Apply and Program Resources

Farmers can apply to CRP either through the continuous sign up at any time, or during a general sign up, which does not necessarily happen every year.

To learn about current funding opportunities, including any CREP projects in your state, contact your local FSA office. 

Read about the latest news on CRP on our Conservation, Energy and Environment blog series!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

Congress created CRP in the 1985 Farm Bill due to increased concern over unacceptably high levels of soil erosion. The 1985 Bill authorized USDA to enroll up to 45 million acres, though actual enrollment has never exceeded 37 million acres. Between 1985 and 2008, the enrollment cap was reduced to 36 million acres before being increased to 39 million and then reduced again to 32 million acres. The 2014 Farm Bill ratchets down the CRP acreage cap from 32 million acres under the 2008 Farm Bill, to 27.5 million acres in 2014, 26 million acres in 2015, 25 million acres in 2016, and eventually to 24 million acres in 2017 and in 2018. No acreage limits are imposed on CCRP or CREP within the overall acreage cap.

As of March 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates annual CRP funding as follows. Please note that as an acreage-based program, the funding levels projected for CRP may change from year to year as CBO gains new data on which to base its projections.

Conservation Reserve Program Funds 

Fiscal Year Estimated Annual CRP Funding (in millions)
2014 $1,730
2015 $1,728
2016 $1,834
2017 $1,904
2018 $1,807
5 yr projection $9,003
10 yr projection $16,766

Authorizing Language

Section 7409 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Section 1231of the Food Security Act of 1985, to be codified at 16 U.S.C. Section 3831.

Last updated in October 2016.