July 7, 2022
On April 1, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) opened enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Program’s (CRP) CLEAR30 subprogram. CLEAR30 is an important component of the larger Continuous Conservation Reserve Program. With both programs taking applications, in this post, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) offers a quick review of how these essential conservation tools function and shares key information for producers interested in applying.
Separate from the general signup, CRP’s continuous signup option, referred to by the shorthand CCRP, pays farmers to install high environmental value partial field conservation practices. Due in large part to NSAC’s advocacy efforts, Congress and USDA have recognized the tremendous benefits of in-field and edge of field enrollments of specialized conservation buffer practices (e.g., riparian buffers, filter strips, field windbreaks, contour strips, prairie strips, and grass waterways) on water quality, soil health and conservation, and fish and wildlife habitat. Unlike the competitive bidding process for the CRP general signup, if farmers and ranchers meet the basic eligibility criteria, they can automatically enroll these buffer practices into CCRP at any time of the year, provided the overall acreage cap for CRP has not been reached. At the time of this writing, just over 22 million acres were enrolled in active CRP contracts, still below the national acreage cap of 25.5 million acres for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, meaning there is ample opportunity for producers to enroll in CCRP.
Producers enrolling in CCRP are eligible for additional financial incentives. A Signup Incentive Payment of 32.5 percent of the first year’s annual rental rate is paid to producers when they sign their contract and enroll new acres in the program. Similarly, producers willing to install a conservation practice may qualify for a Practice Incentive Payment equal to 50 percent of a year’s rental payment. A 3, 5, or 10 percent Climate Smart Practice Incentive is also available for producers installing specific climate-friendly practices. Finally, producers are eligible for a 20 percent rental rate incentive for practices expected to improve water quality.
Within CCRP, the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative, the CRP Enhancement Program (CREP), State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), and the Highly Erodible Land Initiative (HELI) subprograms all target specific conservation objectives. CLEAR and CLEAR30 are summarized below.
CLEAR is an initiative championed by NSAC and established under the 2018 Farm Bill to consolidate the many water quality related practices within the CCRP under a single banner. By law, CCRP enrollments must now total no less than 8.6 million acres by 2023, and CLEAR enrollments must be no less than 40 percent of that total (at least 3.5 million acres). As of now, over 6.8 million acres are enrolled in CCRP and over 3.4 million of these are enrolled in CLEAR. This meets the statutory minimum percentage for CLEAR, but leaves huge additional growth potential for both CCRP and CLEAR signups.
CLEAR-eligible practices – for example: grass waterways, filter strips, riparian buffers, prairie strips, contour grass strips, bioreactors, and wetland restoration and buffers – will now receive a 50 percent Practice Incentive Payment on top of the soil-specific county average rental rate. In addition, CLEAR practices will also be eligible for a 3, 5, or 10 percent rental rate bonus (which varies by specific practice) to reflect the contribution made by the practice to climate-friendly farming. Last but not least, CLEAR practices are also eligible to receive 32.5 percent of the first year’s rental rate as a Signup Incentive Payment upon contract approval.
Together, these incentives more than make up for the 2018 Farm Bill provision reducing the nominal rental rate from 100 percent of county average to 90 percent. The new incentives will pay considerably more than 100 percent of county rental rates. This provides farmers and landowners with a very high value for the installation of conservation buffers that help keep water clean, soil in place, and aquatic species and pollinators healthy and plentiful.
CCRP and CLEAR represent the most cost effective and beneficial enrollments in the program and these new incentives send a clear signal to farmers that enrollments of high payoff practices like riparian buffers, prairie strips, and grass waterways, are worth their while. For additional resources, check out USDA’s continuous signup fact sheet and CLEAR fact sheet.
In adopting the CLEAR initiative, Congress also set up a new pilot program to promote longer-term water quality buffer agreements. CLEAR30 provides farmers and landowners with expiring CCRP contracts to re-enroll the buffers with a new 30-year contract to continue conservation practices. This helps keep our waterways clean and healthy, while providing farmers with the assurance of long-term financial compensation. Originally, the Trump Administration implemented the CLEAR30 pilot program solely in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay watersheds, but in 2021, the Biden Administration expanded the pilot to be nationwide. Since then, enrollment in the program has grown almost seven-fold! NSAC applauds this increased enrollment and the continued national availability of the program, recognizing the long-term water quality benefits of these contracts, namely reducing sediment and nutrient runoff and algal blooms.
FSA mailed postcards to eligible landowners during the week of May 4, 2022, informing them of the opportunity to enroll in CLEAR30 contracts. Producers with cropland currently enrolled in a Continuous CRP contract with a water quality practice set to expire on September 30, 2022 are eligible. Certain marginal pastureland devoted to riparian buffers, wildlife habitat buffers, or wetland buffers is also eligible to enroll in the CLEAR30 pilot, but must be under a CRP contract expiring on September 30, 2022. The water quality practices eligible for enrollment are:
Cropland and certain marginal pastureland contracts expiring on September 30, 2022, that contain these practices are eligible to enroll. Producers interested in enrolling in CLEAR30 should contact their local Service Center. Applications are due by August 5, 2022. Applications for both CRP-1 and CRP-2C30 must be completed and signed by an eligible producer and received at the FSA County Office no later than the close of business on August 5, 2022 to be considered. Further, FSA must confirm with the Natural Resource Conservation Service that offered practices are functioning properly prior to the August 5deadline. Interested producers should contact FSA as early as possible to complete these needed steps.
Successful applicants will enter their new CLEAR30 contracts on October 1, 2022. Annual rental payments for CLEAR30 will be equal to the current CCRP annual payment rate plus a 20 percent water quality incentive and annual rate adjustment of 27.5 percent. Additionally, Practice Specific Climate-Smart Incentives are available as well, as are 75 percent maintenance incentive payments for those producers performing maintenance activities.
Notably, for this signup, producers no longer have the option to designate a third party responsible for maintenance activities in their contract. Producers bear the full responsibility to maintain practices enrolled in this signup. As this change was announced after the enrollment period began in April, producers that have already submitted applications may need to contact their local FSA office to make minor adjustments to their paperwork. Find more details in FSA’s CLEAR30 Fact Sheet and recent program changes bulletin.