USDA adds 800,000 acres to CRP

The environmental benefits bar was raised in latest round

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CRP restored wetland in Ohio
Gail Dunlap used the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to implement many conservation practices on her land, including restoring nearly seven acres of wetlands on one of her Ohio farms. Dunlap has dedicated more than 220 acres of her land in Pickaway and Ross counties to conservation. (USDA photo)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture enrolled more than 800,000 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the program’s 49th sign-up period.

Through CRP, now in its 30th year, the ag department helps farmers offset the costs of restoring and protecting certain grasses, shrubs and trees that improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and strengthen wildlife habitat.

Participants in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program establish long-term, resource-conserving plant species, such as approved grasses or trees (known as “covers”) to control soil erosion, improve water quality and develop wildlife habitat on marginally productive agricultural lands. In return, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency provides participants with rental payments and cost-share assistance. Contract duration is between 10 and 15 years.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Conservation Reserve Program provides nearly $2 billion annually to land owners.

“Over the past 30 years, CRP has created major environmental improvements throughout the countryside,” Vilsack said while announcing the latest enrollment figures May 5. “The program has removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equal to removing 9 million cars from the road annually, and prevented 600 million dump trucks of soil from erosion.”

Raising the bar

The ag department said this was one of the most selective sign-up periods in CRP’s 30-year history, with a record high Environmental Benefits Index cut-off and the lowest-percentage of applications accepted. The high bar means that the per-acre conservation benefits are being maximized and that acres enrolled address multiple conservation priorities simultaneously.

By the numbers

A nationwide acreage limit was established for this program in the 2014 farm bill, capping the total number of acres that may be enrolled at 24 million for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. As of March 2016, 23.8 million acres were enrolled in CRP, with 1.7 million acres set to expire this fall.

Over three million acres have been offered for enrollment this year across the three main categories within CRP, with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) receiving over 26,000 offers to enroll more than 1.8 million acres during the general enrollment period, and over 4,600 offers to enroll more than 1 million acres in the new CRP Grasslands program.

Coming off a record-setting 2015 continuous enrollment of over 860,000 acres, more than 364,000 acres already have been accepted for 2016 in the CRP continuous enrollment, triple the pace of last year. FSA will accept 411,000 acres in general enrollment, the most competitive selection in the history of the program, with the acreage providing record high conservation benefits.

USDA selected offers by weighing environmental factors plus cost, including wildlife enhancement, water quality, soil erosion, enduring benefits, and air quality.

Grassland conservation

The results of the first-ever enrollment period for CRP Grasslands, FSA will also accept 101,000 acres in the program. More than 70 percent of these acres are diverse native grasslands under threat of conversion, and more than 97 percent of the acres have a new, veteran or underserved farmer or rancher as a primary producer.

FSA continues to accept CRP Grasslands offers and will conduct another ranking period later this year. Acres are ranked according to current and future use, new and underserved producer involvement, maximum grassland preservation, vegetative cover, pollinator habitat and various other environmental factors.

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