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USDA announces Conservation Reserve Program signup

The Agriculture Department announced today that it will conduct a four-week Conservation Reserve Program general signup, beginning on March 12 and ending on April 6.

The CRP program idles environmentally sensitive land under 10- to 15-year contracts in exchange for rental payments and cost-share assistance. Producers enrolled in the program plant long-term, resource-conserving covers to improve the quality of water, control soil erosion and develop wildlife habitat. In return, USDA provides participants with rental payments and cost-share assistance.
Michael Scuse

Michael Scuse
"CRP is an important program for protecting our most environmentally sensitive lands from erosion and sedimentation, and for ensuring the sustainability of our groundwater, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams," Agriculture Acting Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Michael Scuse said in a news release.

“As always, we expect strong competition to enroll acres into CRP, and we urge interested producers to maximize their environmental benefits and to make cost-effective offers.

About 30 million acres are enrolled in CRP, and contracts on an estimated 6.5 million acres will expire on Sept. 30, USDA said.

Offers for CRP contracts are ranked according to the Environmental Benefits Index, Scuse noted. USDA's Farm Service Agency collects data for each of the EBI factors based on the relative environmental benefits for the land offered. Each eligible offer is ranked in comparison to all other offers and selections made from that ranking.

FSA uses the following EBI factors to assess the environmental benefits for the land offered:
  • Wildlife habitat benefits resulting from covers on contract acreage
  • Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff and leaching
  • On-farm benefits from reduced erosion
  • Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period
  • Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion
  • Cost
Under current law, the Agriculture Department can enroll up to 32 million acres in the CRP, but high commodity prices have encouraged farmers to take land out of the program and put it back in production.

But conservationists and some political leaders have warned that putting marginal farm land back into production could lead to overproduction and environmental problems.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kans.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kans.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kans., said today that he considers CRP “one of the most proven conservation programs we have."

"I encourage folks to take advantage of this successful, voluntary program to improve soil quality while benefitting wildlife conservation and water quality," Roberts said. "Farmers should have options when it comes to conservation programs and what works best for their operations.”

Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said in a news release that his group welcomed the new signup program.

"The general signup announcement reflects the reality that as some landowners are leaving the reserve, others are equally interested in enrolling in it," Hoefner said. "We applaud the administration for taking this important step to protect natural resources and promote choice and opportunity for farmers."
HoefnerFerd

Ferd Hoefner
Hoefner urged farmers to consider the March 12 through April 6 whole field signup, and also reminded them that there is a continuous CRP signup open year-round for those who wish to enroll conservation buffers on small portions of fields in the program.

The CRP would be cut to 25 million acres under the farm bill proposal that agriculture committee leaders submitted to the failed supercommittee on budget reduction in December.

Hoefner also noted in an email today that the Congressional Budget Office preliminary budget baseline released Tuesday showed a net increase of $973 million in CRP costs over the next 10 years, compared with the budget baseline released last March. Hoefner said he believes CBO analysts assumed CRP rental rates would rise.

The higher cost projection could have implications for the farm bill budget, Hoefner said. If the supercommittee had succeed and included a farm program in its bill, the agriculture committees would have been credited with $3.8 billion in budget savings over 10 years from cutting the CRP from 32 million to 25 million acres, Hoefner said, but that if it were scored against the new budget projection the savings yield would be higher.

“How much more I cannot estimate accurately without further input from CBO, but it is not an entirely insignificant amount at any rate,” Hoefner said. “Might seem a bit like minutiae, except that when every dollar counts as the new farm bill is stitched together, it could prove significant.”