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USDA promotes enrollment of erodible land in CRP

In a sign that the Agriculture Department wants to keep the country's most highly erodible land in the Conservation Reserve Program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that a special continuous enrollment for up to 750,000 acres with an erodibility index of 20 or higher will begin this summer.

Vilsack made the announcement Tuesday in a video to attendees of the National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic in Kansas City, and emphasized that landowners can plant wildlife-friendly long-term cover on the enrolled land.

Contracts on about 6.5 million acres of land in the Conservation Reserve Program are scheduled to expire by September. Because commodity prices have risen dramatically over the past 10 years when most of that land was enrolled, landowners are expected to undertake a careful evaluation about whether to leave the land in the program or take it out.

There are concerns that landowners may be tempted to take out land that is not appropriate for crop production. Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse, who is in charge of the program, said in an interview that the continuous signup for the highly erodible land is a way to encourage farmers to keep that land in the CRP.

USDA will conduct a four-week CRP general enrollment beginning on March 12 and ending on April 6, and Scuse said if for some reason land did not get selected for the CRP it could still be enrolled later if it is highly erodible. Lands not currently enrolled in CRP are also eligible.

“Lands eligible for this program are typically the least productive land on the farm," USDA said in a news release. "In many cases the most cost-effective option to reduce erosion is to put the land into a wildlife-friendly cover, which will improve habitat and reduce sediment and nutrient runoff and reduce wind erosion."

The 2008 farm bill allowed a CRP enrollment of 32 million acres, but as commodity prices have risen the number of acres in the program has fallen to about 30 million. There has been speculation that in the next farm bill Congress may restrict the size of the program to 25 million acres. Under the program, USDA pays a farmer rent for the land and provides technical assistance for planting the cover.