NSAC's Blog

Enrollment Resumes for Continuous Conservation Reserve Program

June 6, 2018

Conservation water buffers.  Photo credit: USDA.

Conservation water buffers.  Photo credit: USDA.

After a year of frozen enrollment, this week the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced it would reopen enrollment in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). CCRP 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.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) celebrated the reopening of CCRP enrollment:

“CCRP is a critical tool that helps farmers to protect the quality of soil, water, and wildlife habitats on their lands,” said Alyssa Charney, Senior Policy Specialist at NSAC. “Last year’s freezing of enrollment, though necessary, was nonetheless a major setback for producers and conservation, so we are extremely pleased that USDA has made the decision to re-open sign ups.”

The signup period will run from June 4, 2018 through August 17, 2018. More information from FSA on the signup period and how to apply is available here

FSA froze the CCRP last May in order to ensure that they did not exceed the current acreage cap of 24 million acres. While the freeze was necessary, it was inevitably a setback for producers and for nationwide conservation efforts. Although NSAC has publicly applauded FSA’s decision to reopen enrollment, we also have several concerns regarding the availability of certain practices and incentive payments under this signup option. These concerns, as well as details about CCRP and the reopened enrollment, are detailed below.

CCRP Basics

CRP has multiple enrollment types, including a periodic “general sign-up” through which large blocks of land (usually whole fields) are bid into the program on a competitive basis and ranked using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). These general sign-ups occur at special times announced by USDA, and are not always available each year.

In its announcement this week, FSA made clear that they do not plan to have any general sign-ups this year. However, CRP and CCRP contracts that are set to expire on September 30 of this year may modify their contract to extend the expiration date for a one year period at the same per acre rental rate.

The CRP program also has a continuous enrollment option, CCRP, which pays farmers to install targeted, partial field conservation practices on the most environmentally sensitive lands. CCRP includes individual conservation practices as well as several special initiatives including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), Farmable Wetland Program (FWP), State Acreage for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative, and several others.

CREP facilitates agreements between states and USDA to pay farmers to address regionally targeted conservation concerns; SAFE is an initiative aimed at providing financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers who implement a variety of practices that conserve high priority wildlife species; and FWP helps producers manage certain types of wetlands and install wetland buffer areas.

As part of this week’s announcement, FSA County Offices were still permitted to accept and process offers under an approved CREP agreement and for the Grasslands Initiative.

The enrollment period announced for this summer (aka “signup 51”) will be available for producers to submit offers to enroll or re-enroll land in CCRP under a limited set of conservation practices.

Limited Conservation Practices Available

Only applications (aka “offers”) for a subset of the total practices available through CCRP will be available through continuous signup 51. Among the offers, NSAC is glad to see that conservation activities like filter strips, conservation buffers, grass waterways and bioreactors have been included. These targeted practices are critical for helping farmers limit nutrient runoff from their lands and improve neighboring water quality. The chart below lists the all practices that will be offered for participants enrolling in signup 51, including the FSA conservation practice code number.

Practice Title
CP8A Grass Waterways, Non-easement
CP9 Shallow Water Area for Wildlife
CP21 Filter Strips
CP21B Denitrifying Bioreactor on Filter Strips
CP21S Saturated Filter Strips
CP22 Riparian Buffer
CP22B Denitrifying Bioreactor on Riparian Buffers
CP22S Saturated Riparian Buffer
CP23 Wetland Restoration on Floodplain
CP23A Wetland Restoration, Non-floodplain
CP27 Farmable Wetlands Pilot Wetland
CP28 Farmable Wetland Pilot Buffer
CP37 Duck Nesting Habitat
CP39 FWP Constructed Wetland
CP40 FWP Aquaculture Wetland Restoration
CP41 FWP Flooded Prairie Wetland

While we are pleased to see the restored availability of several key water quality and wetland practices, we are disappointed by the fact that several other critical in-field (as opposed to edge of field or stream-side) conservation practices are not being made available for enrollment during this particular sign-up period. Those in-field practices, normally eligible for enrollment in CCRP, include contour grass strips, upland buffers, field windbreaks, shelterbelts, living snow fence, cross wind trap strips, and pollinator habitat. Although these practices are relatively low in terms of current acreage enrolled, it is still concerning that existing enrollments of these practices would be unable to reenroll through signup 51.

We are particularly concerned about the new prohibition of expiring continuous contracts to reenroll in any practices outside of the available list. This restriction will surely result in a loss of critical conservation practices, including contour grass strips and in field buffers. It is unclear why land already enrolled in these effective buffer practices would be forced out of the program. We encourage farmers facing this predicament to take the one-year extension offer, and then hopefully they will have the opportunity to re-enroll during next year’s CCRP enrollment.

The practices that are available through signup 51 are focused on side of creek practices (those adjacent to a body of water). While these are critical for protecting and enhancing water quality, in-field buffer practices can be just as or even more effective that streamside practices for sediment and runoff control, and ultimately protecting water quality.

Additionally, the limitation on available practices will have negative impacts on the CRP Organic Buffer Initiative, which is specifically targeted for organic producers to install buffers on their land. These buffers protect soil and water quality, enhance biodiversity and habit, and also protect organic farms against pesticide or genetic drift from neighboring operations.

This signup period’s limited practice options will essentially make the Organic Buffer Initiative irrelevant unless an organic field was bordered by streams on multiple sides. If this was not the case, the landowner could not include windbreaks, pollinator habit, upland buffers, or other in-field options that have been previously approved by FSA as part of a CCRP Organic Buffer Initiative contract.

Incentive Payments Not Available

We are disappointed that signup incentives (SIPs) and practice incentives (PIPs) are not available for conservation practices adopted under signup 51. Generally, FSA supports participating farmers in maximizing water quality and other environmental benefits through the use of SIPs and PIPs within both CCRP and CREP.

SIPs are one-time bonus payments for the adoption of a given practice and PIPs are one-time additional cost-share payments equal to 40 percent of the eligible installation costs of the practice. The basic cost share rate for all CCRP practices is 50 percent, therefore with SIPs the total cost-share rate increases to up to 90 percent of the installed practice. Unfortunately, for signup 51    the cost share rate will not be authorized above 50 percent of the cost of practice. Given the significant environmental benefits associated with the eligible conservation practices, it is disappointing that incentive payments will not be available for this signup period.

Updates: Rental Rates, Grasslands Ranking Criteria

The announcement of this week’s signup also included revised CRP rental rates, as well as modified criteria for enrollment within the CRP Grasslands Initiative. The rental rates were revised to reflect per acre cropland and marginal pastureland rental rates determined by FSA. Contract offers that were left pending will receive the rental rate from when they originally offered, rather than the revised rates.

Additionally, the revised criteria for the Grasslands Initiative ensures that the consideration of new offers considered conservation benefits, threats of conversation, key vegetative cover practices, access for beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran farmers, as well as additional environmental and cost factors.

Options for Expiring CRP Contracts

Nearly 1.5 million additional CRP acres are set to expire on September 30, 2018. For participants with expiring acres, FSA is highlighting the following options in a letter sent to all participants with expiring contracts:

  • 1-year extension of expiring General or Continuous acres
  • Continuous enrollment of portions of a field that is otherwise returning to production
  • the Grasslands Initiative
  • CRP Transition Incentives Program (TIP)
  • Conservation Easement or Working Lands Program

NSAC thanks FSA for highlighting the CCRP, Grasslands, CRP TIP, and working lands options in their letter to producers. We believe these are all excellent options for producers with expiring acres who want to continue advancing conservation efforts on their lands.

CRP TIP was established in the 2008 Farm Bill. This program provides an opportunity for a contract holder to receive two additional annual rental payments after their contract expires, provided that the land is sold or rented to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher who agrees to use sustainable grazing or farming methods as they return the land to production. TIP offers a way to create new farming opportunities while continuing conservation efforts on the land.

The Grasslands Initiative would a good option for producers with land expiring out of CRP that is not suitable for crop production. Through this Initiative, the land in question can be utilized for sustainable grazing and still receive rental payments through CRP. The program emphasizes support for grazing operations, plant and animal biodiversity, and provides an incentive for grassland under the greatest threat of conversion to remain as grassland. Participants receive annual payments and cost-share assistance for contracts that last between 14 and 15 years.

Lastly, working lands conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) also present a valuable opportunity for producers with expiring acres. Producers who wish to transition their less marginal expiring acres into production while still maintaining active conservation practices should seriously consider working lands conservation programs as an option. In many cases, a combination of working lands enrollment and enrolling in or reenrolling in continuous CRP can be taken on the same parcel.

Signup Now for CCRP

Participants looking to enroll or reenroll in CCRP have until August 17, 2018 to apply at their local FSA office. NSAC will continue to report on and advocate for opportunities to ensure participants can enhance and protect the most sensitive acres through this critical conservation program. 

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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