By Max Fisher, Director of Economics and Government Affairs
In a March 1 statement submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), NGFA commended Congress for making positive reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the 2018 farm law, and urged the department to implement them as intended.
In the statement responding to USDA’s request for input on its implementation of the 2018 farm law, NGFA noted Congress’ intent to limit rental rates to better target CRP to marginal land.
NGFA stressed that too much productive farmland currently is enrolled in CRP, which undermines American agriculture’s ability to compete in international markets. By reducing CRP rental rates, future enrollments should be focused more on less productive land. NGFA said this policy change will benefit young and beginning farmers and ranchers who for too long have been forced to compete directly against the federal government to access land.
The 2018 farm law imposes a statutory limit on CRP rental rates, which is a first and was advocated by NGFA and spearheaded by now-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. The 2018 farm law requires that CRP rental rates paid to farmers – before adjustments for practices and soil productivity – are to be adjusted to 90 percent of the county rate for continuous sign-ups and 85 percent for general sign-ups. However, Farm Service Agency (FSA) state offices and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program partners can propose alternative CRP rental rates, which presumably will be higher. In its statement, NGFA urged FSA headquarters to create guidelines to ensure any adopted alternative CRP rental rate is at least as statistically representative of the average non-irrigated cropland cash rental rates as USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) custom rental rates that serve as the basis for CRP rental rates. NGFA argued that without such guidelines to ensure a high standard is met consistently for alternative rate proposals, alternative rates may represent fewer samples, less acreage or higher-value, productive farmland and lead to a subjective and distortive rate-setting process, thereby thwarting the intent of Congress and undermining U.S. agricultural competitiveness.
In addition, NGFA’s statement urges FSA to report the current land use for all expired CRP land to provide a full accounting of CRP’s impact on cropland acreage. According to USDA’s 2012 National Resource Inventory, an astounding 40 percent of land enrolled in CRP contracts that expired from 2007-12 did not return to crop production. NGFA believes the amount of cropland removed from crop production since the inception of CRP in 1985 far exceeds the current CRP acreage cap of 27 million acres. In 1982, there were approximately 420 million acres of cropland in the United States. According to the latest National Inventory Resources report issued in 2015, that figure has declined to only 366 million acres of cropland – a decrease of 54 million acres in just 33 years. NGFA said it believes such information will give policymakers a better grasp of the long-term impacts of CRP, which is a much bigger issue than the debate over the current acreage cap.
NGFA’s statement also urged USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to maintain and publicly make available state- and county-level data on land covered by conservation easements purchased using federal assistance through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). NGFA has received what it believes to be credible anecdotal reports of ACEP’s use for the permanent conversion of cropland to grassland. Unfortunately, anecdotal reports are hard to either substantiate or refute given the limited public access to data on conservation easements purchased through ACEP. NGFA’s statement asked NRCS to collect and publish data on the number of acres placed under conservation easements, the soil classification of the land, and the use of the land before and after implementation of the terms of the easement.
Finally, NGFA’s statement urged NRCS to disallow the use of ACEP to permanently cease or prevent crop production on land placed under conservation easements. NGFA believes policies that reduce the amount of cultivated U.S. cropland will accelerate the existing long-term trend of declining U.S. cropland and will weaken U.S. agriculture relative to major international agricultural export competitors. NGFA’s statement said NRCS should focus ACEP on reducing urban sprawl rather than on curtailing or preventing U.S. crop production.
As for farm law implementation timing, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on Feb. 27 that a CRP general sign-up could begin as soon as Dec. 1, 2019.