NSAC's Blog

Ways to Improve Land-Linking Through the Transition Incentives Program

May 7, 2020

Beginning farmer D’Quinton Robertson with Aaron Lehman of Lehman Farms in Polk City, Iowa. Photo credit: USDA, Preston Keres.

Access to farmland remains one of the most difficult challenges that new and historically underserved farmers face when getting started in agriculture. One of the tools to help connect farmers with available farmland is the Conservation Reserve Program – Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP), which encourages landowners to transition CRP farmland to beginning, socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers. Millions of acres are set to expire from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) over the coming years, creating a unique opportunity to create access to valuable land for historically underserved farmers and ranchers. In this post, we delve into this program and how it can be used to better create land-linking opportunities for farmers across the country.

How Does CRP-TIP Work?

CRP-TIP is a federal farm program administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). The incentive program offers two additional CRP annual rental payments to landowners who rent or sell their land long-term to underserved producers. The incoming farmer must commit to implementing conservation practices on the land – such as sustainable grazing practices, resource-conserving cropping systems, or transitioning to organic production. For more information on CRP-TIP, check out NSAC’s Grassroots Guide.

Since the program was first created over a decade ago, over 3,200 producers have used TIP to transition more than 500,000 acres of land to underserved farmers in 29 states. CRP-TIP has been used to:

  • Help beginning farmers compete with more established farmers and farmland investors in accessing CRP land;
  • Retain conservation on the land by helping beginning producers, farmers of color, and veterans develop and implement conservation plans; and
  • Make it more appealing for landowners to rent or sell to underserved farmers.

To read more about how farmers have used TIP to access land, check out this farmer profile on our blog.

Outreach to Landowners is Key

The 2018 Farm Bill increased total funding for the program from $33 million to $50 million over five years, including $5 million dedicated for outreach and technical assistance to connect landowners with interested farmers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) helped to champion this dedicated pot of outreach and technical assistance funding, and has had many conversations over the years with USDA about how to improve usage of CRP-TIP. 

In 2017, NSAC partnered with FSA and several of our members on the ground to evaluate CRP-TIP and develop strategies for how to increase awareness of and participation in the program, with a focus on four key states (IA, NE, ND, SD) with high enrollment in CRP. The findings and recommendations from this evaluation can be found in the Pathways to Land Access report. Since then, we have continued to work with our members to identify further program improvements – specifically how USDA can most effectively engage in outreach and technical assistance to expand CRP-TIP’s footprint.

Through conversations with our members who are working on the ground to connect farmers with land, NSAC has identified several additional recommendations for how FSA can best utilize the funding provided in the farm bill to create opportunities for new and historically underserved farmers. In addition, we have also identified cross-agency strategies to improve program implementation, as well as ideas to improve CRP-TIP in the 2023 Farm Bill.

Improvements Needed

Regarding implementation and effective outreach strategies for CRP-TIP that FSA can immediately implement, NSAC urges USDA to act on the following recommendations:  

Fund organizations on the ground to lead outreach efforts, as well as matching CRP contract holders with eligible TIP participants 

Farmers often first learn about federal farm programs from on-the-ground farm and community-based organizations. In addition to maintaining robust farmer networks, many of these organizations have staff dedicated to facilitating land-linking and land access in their states or regions. Organizations on the ground are also in regular communication with farmers, provide direct services (including technical assistance), have an understanding of federal farm programs and land access issues, and can therefore be best positioned to promote CRP-TIP to farmers in their networks. 

We therefore recommend FSA provide funding and establish cooperative agreements with organizations on the ground that have networks of and demonstrated expertise in working with historically underserved farmers. Under such a partnership, organizations would be able to work with FSA to conduct targeted outreach to CRP landowners in their communities and lead the match-making process to connect farmers with those seeking land.

Enable CRP landowners to opt-in to communications around CRP-TIP

Since it’s often difficult for farmers interested in TIP to locate CRP landowners, we recommend that FSA allow CRP contract holders to opt-in to receiving communications regarding CRP-TIP. For example, FSA could simply add a question to the application form when farmers first enroll in CRP, or send a follow up survey to all current CRP contract holders to allow them to opt-in to receiving communications about CRP-TIP. The contact and CRP contract information of those farmers who opt-in could then be shared with organizations that FSA selects as partners to conduct targeted and effective outreach. 

Contact CRP contract holders earlier, more often, and through a variety of methods

In addition to on-the-ground organizations conducting outreach, FSA should continue its current outreach efforts around CRP-TIP, including information on CRP-TIP in newsletters and CRP contract letters. CRP contract holders should be notified of the TIP option earlier, more often, and through a variety of methods. Informing contract holders about the TIP option when they first sign up for CRP, again during annual communications, and at least two years before their CRP contract expires could help boost program participation.

Ensure field office staff are trained and knowledgeable about CRP-TIP

Farmers often learn about farm programs from on-the-ground organizations, but it is critical for them to confirm this information with FSA county staff. FSA staff need to be trained and knowledgeable about the program to provide additional information, verify eligibility, and facilitate program enrollment. Every FSA county office should have at least one staff member who can help farmers with CRP-TIP. State Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinators can also be key partners in promoting CRP-TIP and ensuring FSA actively serves beginning farmers and ranchers in their state.

Conduct an analysis of CRP-TIP land attributes and characteristics

In order for any agency or organization to conduct effective outreach on this program, a better understanding of what type of land is available through CRP-TIP is needed. We recommend that FSA conduct an analysis of land that has been enrolled in CRP-TIP, evaluating variables like average size of contracts/parcels, conservation practice(s) utilized while the land was in CRP, availability of housing on the land or surrounding areas, access to water, and what the land produced before CRP and is producing under TIP. Having an understanding of these variables will better allow on-the-ground partner organizations to effectively market CRP-TIP to farmers and ranchers in their communities who often have very specific requirements when seeking desirable farmland. 

Cross-Agency Recommendations

In addition to FSA-specific recommendations, NSAC identified areas that require cross-agency collaboration for implementation. For certain program provisions to be implemented effectively, FSA needs to coordinate and collaborate with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The National Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinator along with Beginning Farmer and Rancher State Coordinators can also be key allies in ensuring successful program implementation.

Ensure land seekers and landowners are aware that CRP-TIP land has priority in various conservation programs

The 2018 Farm Bill gives preference to CRP-TIP land in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). However, in order to make these preferences a programmatic reality, FSA will need to coordinate effectively with NRCS to ensure farmers are made aware of this priority.

Ensure Section 2501 Program grantees are aware of CRP-TIP and that the program is included in training manuals

Per an analysis conducted in 2017, the vast majority of CRP-TIP contracts have been made to beginning farmers and ranchers, with negligible participation by socially disadvantaged farmers (whether beginning farmers or not). As Congress intended the program to serve both beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, these results showcase a major gap. Considering that the majority of CRP acres are in the Plains region, Tribal farmers in particular could make use of CRP-TIP. Ensuring that organizations working with farmers of color, such as those receiving grant funding through the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (Section 2501Program), are aware that CRP-TIP is available to socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers can help address this gap. The Section 2501 Program continues to serve as the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the needs of minority farmers, and grantees can be key allies in making sure that farmers of color and veteran farmers know about and partake in CRP-TIP.

Include metrics for Beginning Farmer and Rancher State Coordinators to increase participation in CRP-TIP

As mandated by the farm bill, USDA recently established Beginning Farmer and Rancher State Coordinators who will be responsible for ensuring beginning farmers in their states have access to USDA programs. These coordinators should develop state-level strategies for improving outreach and education around CRP-TIP and establish metrics on participation in every state. Regional balance goals can help address the uneven utilization of the program currently taking place.

Ideas for the 2023 Farm Bill

Many improvements were made to CRP-TIP in the 2018 Farm Bill, including expanding program eligibility to all landowners with expiring CRP contracts and dedicating funding for outreach and technical assistance. For CRP-TIP to be implemented and utilized effectively, however, greater incentives need to be put in place for landowners to transfer their land to non-relatives. The ideas below represent options on how to better integrate and increase incentives into the program in the next farm bill:

Provide mini grants to farmers for succession planning

Farmers who are in a position to retire or transfer land need incentives to start the succession planning process. As farmers engage in succession planning, professional advisor fees can quickly escalate – which serves as a disincentive for farmers to take on the process. Providing mini grants to farmers for succession planning would serve as both an incentive and as a way to mitigate the costs associated with this process. The funding for these grants could be available to those whose goal is to transition land via CRP-TIP, or expanded more broadly.

Extend CRP-TIP payments to five years

Historically underserved farmers face significant challenges when approaching lenders to access land, including the inherent risk of agriculture and running a small business, and the fact that traditional credit markets have not historically worked well for underserved farmers. Both entering and staying in agriculture remain challenging for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Extending CRP-TIP payments to five years may make CRP-TIP more appealing to landowners with expiring CRP contracts, while supporting historically underserved farmers in accessing land to begin and/or continue farming.

Include CRP-TIP in the CRP baseline to ensure funding continues

When new farm bill programs are rolled out, FSA county office staff can feel some apprehension in sharing information about the new programs due to concerns around the longevity and long-term funding potential of a program. Staff sometimes worry about the possibility of a program being eliminated or not receiving funding at all during the next farm bill cycle, and hesitate to conduct outreach to attract eligible applicants that could be turned away in the future. Including CRP-TIP in the CRP baseline can help alleviate these concerns and send a signal to FSA county office staff and those interested in the program that CRP-TIP will continue to operate and receive funding in future farm bills. Including CRP-TIP in the CRP baseline would ensure the program and its funding are protected in the future.

Exclude a portion of the gains from the sale of land through CRP-TIP from capital gains tax

The capital gains tax on the sale of farmland creates a disincentive for landowners to transfer their land to the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Most of the CRP-TIP contracts that have been made are long-term leases, showcasing that greater incentives need to be put in place for land sales to occur under the program. Further changes are needed in the federal tax code to create a capital gains exclusion for the sale of farmland to beginning, socially disadvantaged or veteran farmers – which would include the sale of land through a CRP-TIP contract.

Next Steps

Farmers have many options of what to do with their expiring CRP acres of farmland that have been set-aside from production for environmental benefits for the past 10 to 15 years. One of the options that farmers can choose is to participate in CRP-TIP and help create an opportunity for the next generation of farmers to get started. In this post, we have covered many recommendations that can improve both current implementation of CRP-TIP and the program long-term. NSAC, along with our members, will continue to advocate for more funding and policy improvements for CRP-TIP to encourage conservation activities on expiring CRP land, while simultaneously supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers

One response to “Ways to Improve Land-Linking Through the Transition Incentives Program”

  1. John Brown says:

    Surely some conditions of soil improvement by organic methods should be included. I didn’t see anything that would mandate or help achieve this. Did I miss it?