By Max Fisher, Vice President of Economics and Government Relations, and Sarah Gonzalez, Director of Communications and Digital Media
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Dec. 5 it will open the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general signup from Dec. 9 to Feb. 28 – the first general signup since 2015.
Signup includes “general” enrollment of large tracts of land, as well as continuous signup for high-priority stewardship practices. The deadline for agricultural producers to sign up for general CRP is Feb. 28, 2020, while signup for continuous CRP is ongoing, USDA noted.
CRP currently has 22 million acres enrolled, with contracts totaling 4.5 million acres set to expire on Sept. 30, 2020. USDA estimates that approximately 7 million acres are available for enrollment under the upcoming signup. The contract period for new enrollments will begin on Oct. 1, 2020.
The 2018 farm law increased the CRP acreage limit from 24 million acres to 24.5 million acres in 2020, 25 million acres in 2021, 25.5 million acres in 2022, and to 27 million acres in 2023.
According to USDA, the general CRP signup will include more enrollments of wildlife habitat through the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative. Some practices under SAFE will remain available through the continuous CRP signup, but the CRP continuous signup will focus primarily on water quality enhancements within the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative. The 2018 farm law prioritizes water quality-preservation practices, such as contour grass strips, filter strips, riparian buffers, wetlands and a new prairie strip.
Other notes about USDA conservation programs announced this week include:
- USDA will relaunch Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) options in each state and will continue to target high-priority local, state or regional conservation concerns.
- A separate CRP Grassland Reserve signup will occur from March 16 to May 15, 2020, and focus on rangeland, pastureland and certain other lands while maintaining the areas as grazing lands. The CRP Grassland Program will be offered each year following general signup.
- Later in 2020, USDA plans to implement pilot programs within CRP. One of the pilot programs is CLEAR 30, which provides the option for contracts expiring with CLEAR practices to be reenrolled in 30-year contracts. The other pilot program is the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), which pays landowners who establish a perennial cover crop on cropland for a period of three to five years in the prairie pothole region.
- The CRP Transition Incentives Program (TIP) is available again and provides contract holders with two additional years of CRP rental payments if they transition expiring CRP land to a beginning farmer or rancher, or a member of a socially disadvantaged group. CRP contract holders no longer need to be a retired or retiring owner or operator to transition their land back to a productive use through TIP.
- Land enrolled in CRP under a 15-year contracts that expired in September 2017, 2018 or 2019 may be eligible for enrollment if there was no opportunity for reenrollment at the time of expiration and the practice under the expired contract has been maintained.
The 2018 farm law imposed new limits on payments under general and continuous CRP contracts. Payment rates will be capped at no more than 85 percent of the average county rental rate for general signup contracts and at no more than 90 percent of the county rental rate for the continuous signup. However, some Farm Service Agency (FSA) state offices petitioned the FSA national office for different CRP rental rates and received alternative, generally higher rates for 127 counties. Under continuous signup, producers also received incentives, including a signup incentive payment and a practice incentive payment.
Earlier this year, the NGFA submitted a statement to USDA in which it commended Congress for making positive reforms to CRP in the 2018 farm law and urged the department to implement them as intended. The NGFA’s statement specifically noted Congress’ intent to limit rental rates to better target CRP to marginal land, and stressed that too much productive farmland currently is enrolled in CRP, which undermines American agriculture’s ability to compete in international markets.