June 30, 2021
Following our last blog post covering the general signup period for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), we now turn our attention to two other components in this blog series: Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) and the CRP Grasslands Program.
In addition to a general signup , CRP also has a continuous signup option, referred to by the shorthand CCRP. The CCRP pays farmers to install partial field conservation practices of high environmental value. Due in large part to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) 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.
CCRP consists of 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). Each is 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, total 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). By the end of 2020, nearly 3.5 million acres were enrolled in CLEAR, already at the statutory minimum, but with huge additional growth potential.
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 20 percent bonus on top of the soil-specific county average rental rate. The soil-specific rental rate itself will also receive a one-time 10 percent inflation adjustment. In addition, CLEAR practices will also be eligible for a 3, 5, or 10 percent rental rate bonus (varies by specific practice) to reflect the contribution made by the practice to climate-smart farming. Last but not least, CLEAR practices are also eligible for 100 percent cost share for practice implementation and a $150 an acre signup incentive paid 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, providing farmers and landowners with a very good value for the installation of conservation buffers that help keep our 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 to help keep our waterways clean and healthy, while providing farmers with the assurance of long-term financial compensation. The Trump Administration implemented the CLEAR30 pilot program solely in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay watersheds, but the Biden Administration has expanded the pilot to be nationwide. NSAC applauds the recent expansion of the program, recognizing the long-term water quality benefits of these contracts like reducing sediment and nutrient runoff and algal blooms.
Eligible producers for CLEAR30 must have certain water quality benefitting practices currently enrolled under CCRP or through CREP with contracts that are expiring on September 30, 2021. Producers interested in enrolling in CLEAR30 should contact their local Service Center by August 6, 2021. 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.
Under CREP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) may enter into an agreement with a state, under which the state and USDA together pay farmers to address targeted local conservation issues. With support from both state and federal sources, CREP payment rates tend to be considerably higher than regular CRP rates. CREP projects also are targeted to specific watersheds or sub-watersheds. Fact sheets on CREPs can be found here. Currently there are over 860,000 acres enrolled in CREPs.
The 2018 Farm Bill made changes to support farmers in maintaining buffers to protect water quality, including installing fencing along streams and providing alternative water sources for livestock. Furthermore, the 2018 Farm Bill also expanded CREP so that, in addition to state governments, non-governmental organizations can enter into agreements with USDA. CREP agreements can include enrollment in CRP Grasslands, CRP CLEAR, CRP CLEAR30, and the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP).
The State Acreage for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers who implement a variety of practices that conserve high priority wildlife species in accordance with state wildlife plans. Under the Trump Administration, SAFE signup was held under the General CRP signup instead of under CCRP as it had been years prior. However, under the Biden Administration, signup for SAFE has once again moved to CCRP. With this change, producers will be able to sign up year-round under the continuous signup and be eligible for additional incentives, including 100 percent cost share for practice implementation, the $150 an acre sign-up incentive, and the 3, 5, or 10 percent climate-smart agriculture rental rate bonus. Currently there are 2.2 million acres enrolled in SAFE.
As with SAFE, HELI is also being moved back from the general signup to the CCRP starting this month. HELI targets the most highly erodible land and allows whole fields or more commonly, just portions of fields to be enrolled. Acres enrolled through HELI are also eligible for 100 percent cost share for practice implementation, the $150 an acre signup incentive, and the 3, 5, or 10 percent climate-smart agriculture rental rate bonus.
CRP’s Grasslands Program is unique within the CRP context because it is a working lands program rather than a land retirement program. At least 2 million acres within CRP is reserved for grasslands enrollments, wherein livestock operations can be put in place or continued, provided the grassland resource is protected. The grassland enrollment prioritizes expiring CRP contracts, lands at risk of conversion or development, and grasslands important to wildlife and the local ecosystem. As of the end of 2020, there were nearly 1.9 million acres enrolled in the Grasslands Program spread out across 41 states.
The next signup for the Grasslands Program starts soon: July 12 through August 20, 2021.
NSAC encourages farmers, including those who otherwise would leave CRP, to consider the grasslands option. We applaud USDA for establishing a CRP Grasslands minimum rental rate of $15 per acre, which benefits more than 1,300 counties with rates currently below the minimum, as well as establishing new National Grassland Priority Zones. We urge USDA to meet and exceed the 2 million acre minimum for this program, and urge Congress to consider further increases to both CRP Grasslands and CCRP acreage in the near future. In the same vein as CLEAR and CLEAR 30, we also urge Congress to authorize a new CRP Grasslands30 program to provide ranchers with longer term support for sustainable grazing management and resource protection, as provided in the Agriculture Resilience Act.
To learn more about CRP’s Grasslands Program, see USDA’s fact sheet.
Unfortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill reduced rental payments rates for the CCRP to 90 percent of county average rental rates, and under the Trump Administration, the 20 percent bonus rental rate payment that was previously given to continuous signups was eliminated. The previous Administration also reduced practice incentive payments (PIPs) from 40 percent to 5 percent, thereby reducing the total cost-share rate to install the buffers from 90 percent to 55 percent. It also moved SAFE out of the CCRP. Because of these congressional and administrative actions, enrollment in the program declined sharply, reaching historic low enrollment figures. Enrollment the last three years averaged 321,000 acres versus an average of 1.2 million acres from 2015-2017, a nearly 75 percent decline.
In recognition of the dramatic fall-off, USDA in December, just prior to the change in Administrations, announced that PIPs would be increased from 5 percent to 20 percent, and that producers would receive a 10 percent incentive payment for water quality practices on land enrolled in CRP’s continuous signup.
In April, USDA announced that effective in June, PIPs will be 50 percent of the cost of the practice, resulting in 100 percent cost share, and the water quality incentive for CLEAR will be doubled to 20 percent. Also announced was the new climate-smart practice incentive based on the carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reduction benefits of each practice. Eligible practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat, and wetland restoration.
These new administrative actions to restore and add incentives to CRP rental rate and cost share calculations effectively negate the congressional action in 2018 to reduce CRP payment rates, and may potentially reverse the sharp decline in CCRP signups. The coming months and years will tell whether higher payment rates will put the CCRP and all its constituent parts back on track and also whether the next Grasslands enrollment periods will drive the initiative well beyond its minimum two million acre goal. The annual general signup of whole farm and whole field enrollments remains in the mix, of course, and despite firmer commodity prices, some acreage will undoubtedly enter CRP via the general signup. The bulk of the acreage that could be enrolled in CRP in the coming years, however, could well be from the CCRP and the Grasslands Initiative, which could be a boon for the environment while keeping land in production.