February 16, 2021
For almost 35 years, the farm bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has compensated farmers and landowners for taking highly erodible and other environmentally sensitive lands out of crop production and enrolling 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, reduce nutrient runoff, sequester carbon, and create beneficial wildlife and pollinator habitats.
Under the terms of the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA must hold a general signup enrollment each year. The 2021 CRP general signup period opened on January 4, 2021 and was set to close on February 12, 2021. However, on February 5, USDA extended the general signup period for CRP indefinitely, demonstrating the incoming Biden Administration’s desire to increase enrollment in the program.
Under the general signup period, agricultural land is bid into CRP on a competitive basis and ranked using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). The Farm Service Agency (FSA) uses the following EBI factors for General CRP, but these can change over time:
For many conservation-minded farm owners, CRP can provide much-needed financial support and serve as an environmental lifeline. CRP helps farmers keep marginal and highly erodible land out of production, preventing long-term detrimental effects on the health of the farm and surrounding environment.
Currently, 20.8 million acres are enrolled in the program, the lowest level of enrollment in the program since 1988. Based on the 2018 Farm Bill, up to 25 million acres can be enrolled in CRP, with 8.5 million acres (8.6 million acres starting next year) reserved for the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) and 2 million acres reserved for the CRP Grasslands Program. Contracts on 3 million acres are set to expire in September of this year, made up of 2.55 million acres enrolled in General CRP and 0.45 million acres enrolled in CCRP. Extending the signup period will give the Biden Administration time to evaluate and implement changes to the program to increase enrollment. We expect an announcement on those changes in the near future – stay tuned!
As USDA considers how to increase enrollment in CRP, we encourage the new Administration to do so in a way that manages the program to maximize environmental benefits. One way to do that is to ensure that adequate program acreage is reserved for all farmers and landowners willing to enroll buffer strips in the continuous signup. Another would be to accept only the bids for enrollment in the general signup that best demonstrate (via high EBI scores) the ability to protect soil, water, and wildlife. Managing CRP to maximize environmental benefits results in producers being compensated for foregone income, while also safeguarding our shared natural resources and maximizing taxpayers’ investment.
NSAC encourages USDA leadership to keep these two factors in mind as the 2021 general signup proceeds. While improving enrollment in the program is important, we believe that all the bids accepted should be of high environmental value. NSAC will also work with the Biden Administration and USDA to recognize the benefits of CRP to sequester carbon in soil and perennial plant biomass and revise the EBI used to rank and select applications. NSAC has submitted comments with recommendations for how to revise the EBI and hope the Biden Administration will review and revise it in time for the winter 2021-2022 general signup.
Similar to the 2020 signup period, the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative will continue to be part of the general signup, instead of the continuous signup as it was prior to 2019. Prospective participants in these specialized wildlife habitat enrollments will indicate in their general signup bids which SAFE project they would like to participate in and, if accepted, their acres will count as SAFE acres.
In upcoming weeks, NSAC will be publishing additional blogs with details on the other CRP programs: CCRP, which includes the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative and the CRP Enhancement Program (CREP), the Grasslands Program, and the CRP Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP). Stay tuned!