CRP is USDA’s largest and most successful conservation program

On December 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the beginning of the next general enrollment period for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which will remain open until February 26, 2016. December also marks CRP’s 30th anniversary, after being signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. CRP is the nation’s largest and most successful private-lands conservation program, assisting farmers with “the cost of restoring, enhancing and protecting certain grasses, shrubs and trees to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.”


CRP Provides Multiple Benefits to Farmers and Urban Communities Alike

Administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), CRP provides yearly rental payments to farmers who remove environmentally sensitive acres from production and plant living cover, primarily grasses and trees. Most land enrolled in CRP is of low quality and often not beneficial for farmers to cultivate. By paying farmers a rental fee similar to the rental value of their land, FSA helps growers restore soil health while also sharing the costs of establishing long-term ground cover -- species that are beneficial for the farm’s productivity and for the environment. FSA’s payments may share up to 50 percent of the cost to establish ground cover and up to 150 percent of costs to improve the condition of the land and watershed resources. The benefits of CRP extend far beyond the farm; these conservation practices improve both water and air quality.  

FSA relies on the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) factors to choose CRP participants from the pool of applicants. Factors considered in enrolling specific acres in CRP include wildlife habitat benefits, water quality benefits, on-farm soil retention benefits, benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period, air quality benefits, and cost. Enrolling in CRP may become especially attractive for farmers when commodity prices are low, as marginal lands generally have lower productivity than prime agricultural soils.

By financially assisting farmers to remove environmentally sensitive, poorly performing land out of production, FSA is both decreasing the impact of agriculture on the environment and helping mitigate climate change. Growing vegetation on marginal land increases carbon sequestration, thus reducing the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from bare or tilled soil. Conventional farming practices, such as tilling, chemical application, and machinery disturbance also release greenhouse gas emissions. Conventional practices also support the growth of additional microbes, which convert organic matter into atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Conservation practices that build soil health also store carbon in the soil. CRP has continuously helped farmers improve soil health, which in turn reduces erosion and increases carbon sink. Through cover cropping and other conservation tools, CRP has prevented over nine billion tons of soil from eroding and sequestered an average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. As of September of 2015, CRP has enrolled 24.2 million acres and is protecting over 170,000 stream miles.


CRP Acreage Is Shrinking, But Goals of CRP More Important than Ever

From a previous cap of 32 million acres in 2013, CRP has seen a big cut under the Farm Bill of 2014 (Pub.L. 113-79), gradually decreasing to 24 million acres in 2018. Although continuous sign-ups have increased, enrolled acreage has consistently declined in recent years, in part due to high commodity prices that had encouraged farmers to put some CRP acres back into production.  Expanding CRP contributes to long-term environmental benefits and reduces agricultural contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.  Additionally, some have cautioned that current low commodity prices will translate to higher CRP lands.

In an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, Debbie Barker of the Center for Food Safety and Michael Pollan of the University of California at Berkeley discussed how soil health can be a major agricultural contributor to fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “We think of climate change as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. But a third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame,” wrote Debbie Barker and Michael Pollan.

The authors claim that, “climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture,” and fixing our agricultural system can be easier and quicker than transitioning to clean energy. Farmers are already opting for planting cover crops to keep nutrients and carbon in the ground. Instead of leaving the field bare, farmers keep it productive and, through the photosynthesizing cover crops, “draw down atmospheric carbon into soils.”

Growing cover crops adds organic matter to the soil, thus improving carbon sink and building more resilient and healthier soils. In fact, “Some scientists project that 75 to 100 parts per million of CO2 could be drawn out of the atmosphere over the next century if existing farms, pastures and forestry systems were managed to maximize carbon sequestration.”  The transition to these conservation practices will not always be easy – acreage for cover crops and perennial growth has been growing slowly – despite their known benefits.  This is due to a combination of factors, the time and expertise needed to implement these practices, their cost, and an often unclear economic benefit to farmers. Additionally, certain mechanisms in the Farm Bill may be disincentives for some of these practices. 

But it’s increasingly clear that conservation practices need to be part of the overall strategy – to ensure agricultural productivity as well as dealing with climate change. Since 1990, emissions from soil cultivation have increased by about 17 percent. That can change through a shift in the way our food is grown and land is treated, and conservation programs like CRP can be of immense value to achieve this transition.

In celebrating the anniversary of CRP, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, commented that “[CRP] is another longstanding example of how agricultural production can work hand in hand with efforts to improve the environment and increase wildlife.” CRP has proven to be an essential tool for incentivizing conservation practices that ultimately create a stronger agricultural system that benefits the environment and the climate.


Author: Gabriela Zayas

For more information see: 

USDA begins 49th enrollment period for the Conservation Reserve Program, USDA

Conservation Reserve Program, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Conservation Reserve Program, Farm Service Agency

The CRP: Paying farmers not to farm, NPR

A secret weapon to fight climate change: Dirt, The Washington Post

Carbon sequestration in soils, Ecological Society of America

Sources of greenhouse gas emissions, Environmental Protection Agency

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): Status and Issues, Congressional Research Service

Conservation Reserve Program, Oregon State University

2014 Farm Bill Conference Report Analysis, National Wildlife Federation

Conference Report Agricultural Act of 2014, U.S. Government Printing Office