December 18, 2019
For almost 35 years, the farm bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has paid farmers and land owners to take highly erodible and other environmentally sensitive lands out of crop production and enroll them instead in conserving practices. Through CRP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pays farmers to set aside land for grass or tree cover for a period of 10 or 15 years. This set aside period helps keep soil in place, prevent water pollution, and create beneficial wildlife and pollinator habitats.
On December 5, USDA released an interim final rule to implement changes to CRP included in the 2018 Farm Bill, and subsequently announced the following enrollment opportunities:
Historically, general sign-ups have occurred whenever USDA determined there was sufficient demand and acres available to warrant a general enrollment. Under the terms of the new farm bill, however, USDA has been directed to hold a general sign-up enrollment each year.
The 2020 CRP general sign-up opened on December 9, 2019 and will close on February 28, 2020.
According to USDA, up to 7 million acres could be available for sign-up this year, which would make it the largest general sign-up in 10 years. USDA arrives at the 7 million figure by adding the 2 million acres currently available under the program’s acreage cap to the 5 million acres with contracts coming due September 30, 2020.
For many conservation-minded farm owners, CRP can provide much-needed financial relief and serve as an environmental lifeline. Many farmers feel pressured to plant on marginal and highly erodible lands in order to get as much financial value out of their land as possible. This is an understandable decision financially, but one that can have long-term detrimental effects on the health of the farm and surrounding environment.
In order to best serve producers while also safeguarding our shared natural resources and the taxpayers’ investment, USDA must manage CRP in a manner that maximizes environmental benefits. One way to do that is to ensure that all farmers and landowners willing to enroll buffer strips in the continuous sign-up have the opportunity to do so by keeping adequate program acreage available for that purpose. Another would be to to accept only the bids for enrollment in the general sign-up that best demonstrate the ability to protect soil, water, and wildlife.
NSAC encourages USDA to keep these two factors in mind as it proceeds with the 2020 general sign-up. We believe it would be ill-advised to attempt to reach the 7 million acres maximum for this sign-up if it interferes with the continuous sign-up, or if it requires (as it almost surely would) accepting bids with low environmental value.
One new wrinkle is that the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative, which until now has always been part of the continuous sign-up, will now be part of the general sign-up instead. Prospective participants in these specialized wildlife habitat enrollments will indicate in their general sign-up bids which SAFE project they would like to participate in and, if accepted, their acres will count as SAFE acres.
Back in the 1990s, NSAC helped to ensure that Congress and USDA recognized the benefits of partial field enrollments of specialized conservation buffer practices (e.g., riparian buffers, filter strips, field windbreaks, contour strips, and grass waterways) on water quality and soil health. Today, farmers and landowners can enroll these buffer practices into CRP without any competitive bidding on a continuous basis. Though now reopened, the continuous sign-up has been put on hold several times over the last few years due to concerns about available space within the program’s acreage cap. With proper management of CRP by USDA, there is no reason why it should close again.
The 2018 Farm Bill amalgamated the many water quality related practices within the CRP continuous sign-up under a new, single name – the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative. By law, total continuous enrollments must total no less than 8.6 million acres by 2023, and CLEAR enrollments must be no less than 40 percent of that total. In addition, prairie strips have been added to the list of eligible practices, effective immediately. For additional resources, check out USDA’s continuous sign-up fact sheet and CLEAR fact sheet. Stay tuned for a future post focusing on prairie strips.
CRP’s Grasslands Program is unique in that it is more of a working lands program than a land retirement program. The next sign-up for the Grasslands Program will begin once general CRP sign-up ends – tentatively, March 16 through May 15. At least 2 million acres within CRP will be 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. NSAC will encourage USDA to meet and exceed the 2 million acre minimum for this program.
CRP-TIP offers a special incentive of two years of extra CRP rental payments to owners of land that is currently enrolled in CRP but will be returning to production at the end of their contract period, if those landowners rent or sell their land to beginning, socially disadvantaged or veteran farmers or ranchers. The new farmers and ranchers must commit to using sustainable grazing practices, resource-conserving cropping systems, or transition to organic production to be eligible.
During NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill campaign, we fought and won an important change to CRP-TIP, which allows farmers to participate in the program even if they are not retiring. Another change secured by the Coalition allows the new farmer in the CRP-TIP relationship to count the final two years that the land was in CRP toward their three-year organic transition period, should they plan to become a certified organic operation. The farm bill sets the funding for CRP-TIP at $50 million over the five years of the bill. At that funding level, there should be no shortage of money available to accept all interested participants through 2023.
For additional CRP-TIP resources, check out the Farm Service Agency’s CRP-TIP Fact Sheet and NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.
Just three days before the beginning of general CRP signup, USDA announced its Interim Final Rule for CRP. The new rule incorporates changes from the 2018 Farm Bill, including new, lower rental rate payments. General sign-up enrollments will now be limited to 85 percent of county average rental rates and continuous sign-up enrollments limited to 90 percent of county average rental rates.
Unfortunately, while the rule tracks the statute in allowing for up to 50 percent of total cost for Practice Incentive Payments in the continuous sign-up, USDA is opting to only provide 5 percent – a very negligible incentive. NSAC will be advocating for USDA to address this, and several other significant issues in the Interim Final Rule in the new year. We will also submit recommendations and comments on the rule, and publish them on our blog.
The Interim Final Rule is effective immediately. USDA will accept public comments on the rule through February 4, 2020. Public comments can be submitted through regulations.gov here.