The future of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)—and its years of benefits—may be scattered to the wind like the soil it was originally designed to save.
It all depends on the provisions in the 2008 farm bill.
USDA's Farm Service Agency sought public comments on CRP via a series of nine public meetings in September and October 2009. The feedback will serve as the basis for a new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) draft that is targeted for a January 2010 release. The SEIS draft will be open for public comment, too, with a goal for the final version to be ready by April 2010.
USDA outlined two alternatives for the future of CRP. The first would keep enrollment at 32 million acres (the new cap in the 2008 farm bill), divvied up as 24 million enrolled via general sign-ups and 8 million from targeted sign-ups (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, continuous sign-ups, Farmable Wetlands Program, State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, etc.). The second option would cut CRP acreage to 24 million—20 million acres via general sign-ups and 4 million from targeted sign-ups.
The latter option has typically been met with opposition. Some groups, though, such as the National Grain and Feed Association and livestock producers' groups, have long called for the acreage level to be cut to allow productive land that had been enrolled in CRP to come back into production.
USDA also sought public input on two other items:
- Acreage limit. A hot-button topic as the program was gearing up to full enrollment was the maximum number of acres to be allowed in each county. The limit was originally set at 25%, with an allowance for counties to let more in. USDA suggested keeping that provision intact or allowing limited enrollment for up to 50% of a county's cropland.
- Rental rates. For contracts made after Oct. 1, 2009, USDA offered to use adjusted rental rates as measured by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), with soil productivity adjustments for general sign-ups and a potential increase in incentives for targeted sign-ups. Under a reduced-acreage CRP, USDA suggested using adjusted NASS rates with soil productivity adjustments but offered no change for incentives on targeted sign-ups.
Where CRP stands now. As of Oct. 31, USDA data shows 31.119 million acres of land in CRP, which is less than the 32-million-acre cap. Originally, 3.783 million acres enrolled via general sign-ups were scheduled to expire at the end of September. In May, USDA offered three-to-five year extensions on 1.5 million of those acres. Contract holders on 1.054 million, or 70%, of those acres opted for the extension.
What will happen to the venerable program? It's too early to tell. But the SEIS could impact future decisions on CRP, such as those involving the ramifications of allowing acres to exit the program early, only to have them brought back into production. An
updated impact statement was a tool USDA didn't have at its disposal when it denied penalty-free early-out on CRP acres for 2008 and 2009 production.
The challenge of what to do with CRP is a tall one for USDA. As of Sept. 30, 2010, 4.5 million acres are set to expire; as of Sept. 30, 2011, another 4.5 million acres will expire. Perhaps USDA's biggest test will come in 2012, when more than 6.5 million acres are set to exit the program.
You can e-mail Roger Bernard at firstname.lastname@example.org.