Conservation Reserve Program


Taking environmentally sensitive land out of production and establishing long-term ground cover 

It’s a fact of life – some lands are simply more productive and better suited for agriculture than others. In the case of marginal and highly erodible lands, it is often better for the long-term health of the soil to keep these sensitive lands out of production and covered instead with grass or trees. In the case of less marginal lends, conservation buffers (e.g., riparian buffers, grassed waterways, and contour grass strips) are often needed to prevent sediment and nutrients from polluting water bodies. The primary purpose of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is to conserve and improve soil, protect water quality, and provide wildlife habitat by establishing long-term cover on highly erodible land or land in need of conservation buffers that has previously been in row crop production. In exchange for cost-share and rental payments, farmers remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant resource-conserving land cover to protect soil, water, and wildlife habitat.

Learn more about CRP:

Program Basics

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers CRP, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) oversees land eligibility determinations, conservation planning, and implementation on the ground. State forestry agencies provide technical support to farmers enrolling newly forested land in the program.

General CRP – Agricultural land is bid into the general signup for CRP on a competitive basis and ranked using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). Currently, FSA uses the following EBI factors for General CRP, which can change over time:

  • Wildlife habitat benefits
  • Water quality benefits
  • On-farm soil-retention benefits
  • Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period
  • Air quality benefits
  • Cost

Continuous CRP – In addition to a general signup period, CRP also has a continuous signup option, the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP), which 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.
  • CCRP eligible practices include: riparian buffers, wildlife habitat buffers, wetland buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, grass waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, salt tolerant vegetation, and shallow water areas for wildlife. To learn more about these practices, visit the FSA website.

Clear Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) – Within CCRP, the 2018 Farm Bill establishes the CLEAR Initiative which includes targeted practices to help protect water quality by reducing sediment loadings, nutrient loadings, and harmful algal blooms. USDA is required to devote at least 40 percent of all CCRP acres to CLEAR. While FSA has previously offered targeted CCRP enrollments to benefit water quality, the authorization of CLEAR directs FSA to give priority within continuous enrollment to CLEAR practices. Additionally, as part of the reporting requirement for the enrollment of CLEAR acres, FSA must report on estimated water quality benefits resulting from CLEAR.

CRP Enhancement Program (CREP) – USDA may also enter into a CREP agreement with a state, under which the state and USDA together pay farmers to address targeted conservation issues identified by local, state, or tribal governments or non-governmental organizations. The 2018 Farm Bill makes changes to ensure farmers have the financial support they need to maintain buffers to protect water quality. This includes support for installing fencing along streams and providing alternative water sources for livestock.

Grassland Enrollments – Additionally, USDA reserves roughly 2 million CRP acres per year for grassland enrollments, through which ranchers maintain and enhance conservation cover on grazing lands. The farm bill increases grasslands acres up to 2 million acres by 2023. In addition to prioritizing enrollment of expiring CRP contracts, the farm bill also authorizes priority for lands at risk of conversion or development, as well as grasslands of ecological significance.

All types of CRP contracts are for either 10 or 15 years, with the longer 15-year agreements intended for tree plantings. At the end of a contract, landowners have the option of re-enrolling for another term. As with initial enrollments, whole field and grassland re-enrollments are competitive, whereas partial field CCRP re-enrollments are automatic.

FSA provides CRP participants with annual rental payments, including certain incentive payments, and cost-share assistance as follows:

  • Rental Payments: FSA bases rental rates on the productivity of the soils within each county and the average dryland cash rent. The maximum rental rate for each offer is calculated in advance of enrollment in the program. Producers may offer land at that rate or offer a lower rental rate to increase the likelihood that their offer will be accepted. The 2018 Farm Bill limits the rental payments available for CRP enrollments to 85 percent of the average county rental rate for general enrollment, and 90 percent of that estimated rate for continuous enrollments.
  • Cost-share Assistance: FSA provides up to 50 percent cost-share of the actual or average cost of establishing the practice.
  • Incentive Payments: USDA may make additional payments up to the actual cost of thinning and other practices to improve the condition of resources promote forest management, or enhance wildlife habitat. The farm bill also maintains incentives for continuous practices, including signing incentives at a rate equal to 32.5 percent of the original rental payment, incentive bonuses for additional cost-share, as well as those related to specific practices, including buffers and wellhead areas, for certain high conservation value projects.

CREP participants receive the annual rental payment, certain incentive payments, and up to 50 percent cost-share. CREP generally includes a sign-up incentive as well for participants to install specific practices.

Generally, no more than 25 percent of a county’s cropland can be enrolled in CRP and federal wetland easements at any given time. USDA can waive this limit in order to enroll cropland in CCRP or CREP, if the county agrees.

The 2018 Farm Bill retains several transition options for expiring CRP land. Within the 2 million-acre reservation for grassland enrollments, expiring CRP acres are prioritized; the land will remain in CRP but economic use of the land for grazing and haying is greatly expanded. The farm bill allows producers with expiring CRP land to enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program in the final year of their CRP contract, so long as no double payments are made. Lastly, the bill provides two years of extra rental payments to owners of expiring CRP land who rent or sell their land to a beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran producer who will practice conservation on the land through the Transition Incentives Program.

Eligibility

To be eligible to enroll in CRP, a producer must have owned or operated the land for at least 12 months preceding the first year of the contract period, unless:

  • The new owner acquired the land due to the previous owner’s death
  • The ownership change occurred due to a foreclosure
  • FSA is otherwise satisfied that the new owner did not acquire the land for the purpose of placing it in CRP

 To be eligible for CRP, land must be one or more of the following:

  • Highly erodible cropland that is planted or considered planted in 4 of the previous 6 crop years, and that can be planted in a normal manner
  • Marginal pasture that is suitable for use as a riparian buffer or for similar habitat or water quality purposes
  • Ecologically significant grasslands that contain forbs or shrubs for grazing.
  • A farmable wetland and related buffers

Eligibility Exceptions

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) – under CREP, the state and USDA together pay farmers to address targeted conservation issues identified by local, state, or tribal governments or non-governmental organizations.

  • Agreements are therefore limited to specific geographic areas and to farmland where specific conservation practices can address high priority conservation concerns conservation issues identified by the CREP project.
  • Land can only be enrolled in CREP if a state has a CREP agreement, so farmers should contact their county FSA office to determine if land in their county is involved in a CREP. State fact sheets on their specific CREP agreements are available here.
  • If there is an agreement in place in a given state, land can be enrolled in CREP on a continuous basis provided it meets the eligibility requirements for the program. Any land that meets basic CRP eligibility requirements, plus the additional requirements for a specific CREP project, may be eligible for enrollment. Most additional CREP land eligibility requirements apply to the location and characteristics of the land to be enrolled.
  • The 2018 Farm Bill allows nongovernmental organizations to be the lead partners for CREP projects; in order to do so they must provide at least 30 percent of the total program cost. In the case of state-led projects, the percentage will be determined by a negotiation between USDA and the state. It also explicitly authorizes drought and water conservation agreements to address regional drought concerns.
  • Additionally, the 2018 Farm Bill modifies the payments available for riparian buffer maintenance under CREP, ensuring that USDA can pay for regular management of the buffers throughout the agreement. It also allows for food-producing woody plants as part of forested riparian buffers, provided that conservation benefits are maintained and only native plants are planted within 35 feet of the watercourse.

Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative – CLEAR includes continuous enrollments of cropland, marginal pastureland, and grasslands that will have a positive impact on water quality. CLEAR eligible practices include but are not limited to:

  • Grass waterway
  • Contour grass sod strip
  • Prairie strip
  • Filterstrip
  • Riparian buffer
  • Wetland or a wetland buffer
  • Saturated buffer

The Program in Action

CRP has helped protect tens of millions of acres of environmentally sensitive farmland over the nearly 35 years that the program has been in operation. Nearly 24 million acres are enrolled in CRP as of 2019.

CRP has been used to:

  • Plant native prairie and trees on marginal land, increasing wildlife populations and enhancing water quality and flood control.
  • Establish longer lasting meadows of native wildflowers to support pollinators and other wildlife populations.
  • Restore farmable wetlands and develop nesting habitat in areas deemed as the most critical waterfowl areas.
  • Generate indirect benefits, such as opportunities for local students to learn about conservation and natural resources.

Read more about how CRP has helped conserve environmentally sensitive land across the country:

How to Apply and Program Resources

FSA enrolls most CRP acres during periodic “general sign-ups,” through which land is bid into the program on a competitive basis and ranked using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). General sign-ups occur periodically at special times announced by USDA. The 2018 Farm Bill directs FSA to hold a General CRP sign-up at least once a year, and to announce at least one Grasslands Initiative ranking period subsequent to the announcement of general enrollment offers. Farmers can apply to CRP either through the continuous sign up at any time, or during a general sign up.

To learn about current funding opportunities, including any CREP projects in your state, contact your local FSA office.

For more information, check out the FSA resources below:

You can also read about the latest news on CRP on NSAC’s Conservation, Energy and Environment blog series.

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

Congress created CRP in 1985 following increased concern over unacceptably high levels of soil erosion. The 1985 Farm Bill authorized USDA to enroll up to 45 million acres in CRP, though actual enrollment has never exceeded 37 million acres. Between 1985 and 2008, the enrollment cap was reduced to 36 million acres before being increased to 39 million and then reduced again to 32 million acres.

The 2014 Farm Bill ratcheted down the CRP acreage cap from 32 million acres down to 24 million acres by 2018. The 2018 Farm Bill moderately increased the CRP acreage cap – remaining at 24 million acres in 2010, and then up to 24.5 million acres in 2020, 25 million acres in 2021, 25.5 million acres in 2022, and eventually to 27 million acres in 2023. Within the overall acreage cap, the farm bill directs FSA to enroll at least 8 million acres (increasing up to 8.6 million by 2023) in CCRP. Additionally, the 2018 Farm Bill increases the acreage set-aside for CRP Grasslands to 2 million acres by 2023, and requires that any acres designated for grasslands be enrolled in the initiative (or they can not be enrolled at all).

In addition to the acreage cap changes, the 2018 Farm Bill also makes several other updates to CRP, including establishing two new pilot programs within CRP: CLEAR 30 and the Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program (SHIPP).

As of May 2019, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates annual CRP funding as follows. Please note that as an acreage-based program, the funding levels projected for CRP may change from year to year as CBO gains new data on which to base its projections.

Conservation Reserve Program Funds 

Fiscal Year Estimated Annual CRP Funding (in millions)
2019 $1,730
2020 $1,728
2022 $1,834
2023 $1,904
5 yr projection $9,003
10 yr projection $16,766

Authorizing Language

Section 2201 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 amends Section 1231 of the Food Security Act of 1985, to be codified at 16 U.S.C. Section 3831.


Last updated in August 2019.