The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced an open sign-up period for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from December 9, 2019 through February 20, 2020. This will be the first sign-up period for the General CRP program since the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill and will be the 54th CRP sign-up period since the CRP program started in 1986. There is also an ongoing sign-up for the Continuous CRP program.
The CRP program was established in the 1985 Farm Bill and will be entering its 35th year of existence in 2020. CRP was originally established to take large segments of marginal crop land out of production and to stabilize crop prices and to control soil erosion. Over time, the CRP program has become more targeted toward taking more environmentally sensitive crop land out of production, with a focus on protecting water quality, enhancing wildlife habitat, and improving air quality, as well as controlling soil erosion.
According to USDA statistics, during the 35-year history of the program, CRP has resulted in the following environmental benefits:
- Prevented more than 9 billion tons of soil erosion, enough to fill 600 million typical dump trucks.
- Reduced nitrogen runoff by 95 percent and phosphorus runoff by 85 percent on previously tilled land.
- Sequestered an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent removing 9 million cars from highways in the U.S.
- Created in excess of 3 million acres of restored wetlands and protected more than 175,000 miles along rivers and streams through grass buffers and waterways.
- Resulted in increased populations of ducks, pheasants, wild turkeys, quail, and other birds and wildlife, as well as benefitting bees and pollinators.
From 1986 to 1995, the maximum acres that could be enrolled in the CRP program at any one time was 45 million acres. Over time, the maximum CRP acres was gradually reduced through various Farm Bills, reaching a low at a maximum of 24 million acres in the 2014 Farm Bill. The maximum CRP acreage will now be gradually increased under the 2018 Farm Bill to a maximum of 27 million CRP acres by 2023. There were over 30 million acres in the CRP program from 1990 to 2010, with CRP acreage declining since that time. Currently, there are just under 22 million acres enrolled in the CRP program, which includes 13.2 million acres under General CRP contracts, 6.5 million acres under Continuous CRP contracts, and balance enrolled under special CRP programs.
Any land that was under a CRP contract that expired in 2017, 2018 or 2019 is eligible to be considered for enrollment in the current CRP sign-up period. There has not been an opportunity for re-enrollment of those acres through a General CRP sign-up since 2016. Any of the 5.4 million acres under a CRP contract that will be expiring on September 30, 2020 are also eligible for re-enrollment into CRP during the current sign-up period.
Land owners and producers may also want to consider possibly putting new land into CRP during the General CRP enrollment period. To be eligible for CRP, the land must have been owned or operated for least 12 months prior to the end of the CRP enrollment period. In addition, CRP eligibility requires that the land has been planted or considered planted in four of the past six years from 2012 to 2017. It is permissible to include alfalfa and hay acres that were included in a crop rotation as qualifying CRP acres. Farm operators and land owners may want to evaluate some difficult crop acres, which have been particularly exposed in the 2018 and 2019 crop years, for potential enrollment into the CRP program.
Under the General CRP program, producers and land owners submit bids to enroll land into the CRP program beginning on October1, 2020, following the 2020 crop year. The duration of the CRP contracts is for 10 to15 years. The CRP bids will be evaluated and ranked based on the “environmental benefits index” (EBI) to determine which acres will be accepted into the CRP program in 2020. The EBI factors include:
- Wildlife habitat benefits resulting from the proposed cover on the CRP acres.
- Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff, and leaching.
- On-farm benefits from reduces erosion.
- Long-term benefits that will likely endure beyond the CRP contract period.
- Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion.
- Cost factor, as producers are allowed to submit rental bids for the proposed CRP acres.
The 2018 Farm Bill established the maximum CRP rental rates at 85 percent of the average county rental rates for CRP acres enrolled under the General CRP program. Producers and land owners may offer lower rental rates lower than the maximum rate under the General CRP program in order to enhance the likelihood of their CRP bid being accepted, as part of the competitive bid process. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) also provides cost-share assistance up to 50 percent of the total cost to establish the approved cover on acres that are accepted into the CRP program.
Producers and land owners may enroll eligible acres into the Continuous CRP program at any time. This program is for the most environmentally sensitive land, which is devoted to specific conservation practices. The Continuous CRP program does not require a competitive bidding process to have the acres accepted into CRP, and the annual rental rates are pre-set at 90 percent of the average county rental rate. The potential 50 percent cost-share for cover crop establishment is also available for Continuous CRP contracts.
For more information on either the General or Continuous CRP programs, or to find out the maximum county CRP rental rates, producers or land owners should contact their local FSA office. More information on the CRP program is available on the FSA website at: www.fsa.usda.gov/crp
Note — For additional information contact Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst and Senior
Vice President, MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. (Phone — (507) 381-7960);