On May 5, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that USDA had completed the most competitive sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in its 30-year history. CRP pays landowners to retire working farm land to establish environmentally beneficial species, such as grasses and trees, to control erosion, improve water quality and wildlife habitat. The most recent enrollment under CRP issued contracts for 411,000 acres, with demand for the program reaching 1.8 million acres. Under the 2014 Farm Bill, acreage caps for CRP have fallen from 37 million acres, in 2007, to 24 million acres in 2016. 

At the end of March, USDA reported that 23.8 million acres are currently covered under CRP, with 1.7 million of these acres set to expire by the fall; acres are enrolled under CRP for 10 to 15 years.  According to USDA, CRP contains nearly one million acres of ecologically sensitive land such as bottomland hardwoods, flood-plain wetlands, as well as duck and bird nesting habitat.  CRP has long been viewed as the gold standard for farm conservation, as it removes land from production. This is in contrast to other conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, which allows conservation measures to be implemented on working lands.

In addition to the 411,000 acres enrolled in the general program, USDA will also accept 101,000 acres under the new CRP grasslands program. The grasslands program will provide assistance to farmers and ranchers to plant appropriate grasses, trees and shrubs for grazing, with 70 percent of the CRP grasslands being grasslands that are under threat of conversion to other land uses, 97 percent are operated by new or disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

The 2016 enrollment period saw a record level of interest in CRP from farmers and ranchers, despite the low acreage cap. When commodity prices for crops such as corn and soy drop, farmers look towards CRP and other programs to retire land at a stable price.  In exchange for payment to retire land, farmers must establish beneficial grasses and other conservation measures. Therefore, the record interest reflects rock-bottom commodity prices. According to Secretary Vilsack, “There’s a significant demand out there that a cap of 24 million acres doesn’t seem to be aligned with desire, the need and demand … There’s clearly a desire and a demand for more participation in the program than we have the authority to provide.”

During the 2014 Farm Bill negotiations among lawmakers, conservation programs took a significant hit, as the Farm Bill was used as a vehicle to cut $23 billion in federal spending over 10 years. As a percentage, conservation programs were cut the most, at 9.5 percent, versus 8.6 percent for commodities, and 1 percent for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Amid high commodity prices, it was expected that interest in removing acres from production through CRP would remain low.  Therefore, to trim the Farm Bill, CRP took a big hit, with Congress cutting the program from 37 million acres in 2013, to 27.5 million acres in 2014.  The cap bottoms out at 24 million acres in 2018.  Cuts to CRP also provided $6 billion for other conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). 

Vilsack noted that in the next Farm Bill, Congress needs to “look at more than saving money in establishing the number of CRP acres.”  According to other farm-state lawmakers, the CRP cap will be on the table in the next Farm Bill debate, as lawmakers look for ways to assist a slumping farm economy.  At the same time, some wonder if CRP pits beginning farmers against the government, with Rick Robinson at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation commenting that beginning and young farmers may not be able to compete with the rental prices offered under CRP.  “These farmers were in competition with the government to try to rent those acres,” stated Robinson. 

Some farm groups are advocating for shifting to a more targeted approach to CRP, using a continuous sign-up program, versus a general-sign up period.  Under continuous sign-up, farmers may apply at any time and eligible land is automatically enrolled; general sign-up requires a competitive bidding process. The National Grain and Feed Association and others view the general-sign up program as a ‘land-idling program,’ with Randy Gordon, president of the Association commenting, “markets can ebb and flow and to try to size the CRP based on what we think market prices are doing and what landowner demand is going to be, we don’t think is the right equation.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, along with a coalition of farming and commodity groups, have advocated for shifting a third of CRP land to continuous enrollment to receive both the greatest benefit to the environment and the ability to continue farming the most productive areas of a field.

Programs like CRP and others in the Farm Bill’s conservation title are essential to making voluntary conservation measures successful.  By removing ecologically sensitive, low-productivity land from production, farmers benefit from both a stable price per acre as well as saving on reduced inputs, with communities benefiting from improved air and water quality.  With low acreage caps, low productivity, ecologically sensitive lands will stay in production.  At the same time, CRP’s general sign-up method of land retirement may become a thing of the past, as farmers and USDA look toward integrating conservation into production, to sustainably provide food, feed, fuel and fiber as well as a healthy environment to a growing global population.   


For more information see:

USDA Announces Conservation Reserve Program Results, USDA

Time to Rethink CRP Cap?, Feedstuffs  

CRP Attracting Record Number of Farmers, Farm Progress

CRP Letter to USDA FSA Administrator, NSAC

Room for Continuous Debate on the Future of CRP Acres, The Progressive Farmer

CRP Attracting Record Number of Farmers, The Des Moines Register