The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), was established in the Food Security Act of 1985, in order to permanently authorize the effort to provide incentives for farmers to retire environmentally sensitive cropland, with the added benefit of helping to reduce the supply of crops that are often in surplus and put downward pressure on crop prices.
However, this program was not the first time that such a policy approach was used in the U.S. agricultural sector. After the Supreme Court declared in January 1936 that the main mechanism of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which involved an effort to control agricultural production by paying farmers to not plant crops was unconstitutional, Congress came back within less than two months to pass the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936.
The new law replaced the reduction of over-production as the main program goal with that of the subsidization of the adoption of conservation practices, such as encouraging more rotation of crops, diversion of land to new uses, and discouraging planting of so-called ‘soil-depleting crops’. The crops that were included in this category were corn, wheat, and cotton, all of which were in surplus production at the time. Farmers were instead encouraged to raise grasses, forage crops, and legumes, to help rebuild nitrogen and carbon content in the soil. In addition, the legislation authorized USDA to provide financial assistance to farmers wishing to install terraces on their fields or plant cover crops. These were primarily short-term efforts.
The Soil Bank program enacted during the 1950s was the first effort to encourage long-term diversion of cropland for conservation purposes. It included one-year set-asides but also opportunities for farmers to receive payments for 3, 5, or 10 year contracts to establish conservation measures. Farmers would receive both annual rental payments and cost share assistance for their adoption or installation of these practices. This component of the program was only operated between 1956 and 1960. At its peak in 1960, this early version of the Conservation Reserve Program had nearly 29 million acres enrolled.
The Agriculture Act of 1961, enacted during the Kennedy administration, also included several conservation provisions, such as authorizing federal cost share for watershed and flood protection projects and payments to producers for conserving and developing natural resources over the long-term, but no new money for long-term Soil Bank enrollment. The next farm bill, the Food and Agriculture Act of 1965, also gave the Secretary the authority to establish a cropland adjustment program, with payments to farmers who diverted cropland to conserving uses to enhance wildlife habitat, forests, and recreational uses. Farmers could sign up for the program under five or ten year contracts. USDA was allowed to spend up to $225 million per year on this program.
The current incarnation of the Conservation Reserve Program was intended to allow farmers to voluntarily set aside, on a long-term basis, cropland vulnerable to soil erosion in exchange for annual payments. Farmers could plant the set-aside land in perennial grasses (normally in ten-year contracts) or trees (up to 15-year contracts). The CRP was designed to address conservation objectives, such as enhancing wildlife habitat and protecting soil quality, but it had the secondary benefit of reducing agricultural production and relieving pressure on the need to require all farmers to set aside high percentages of their cropland under the annual acreage-reduction program.
The program has traditionally drawn strong support across U.S. agriculture, except for from some livestock groups, which would like to see more grain production and thus cheaper feed. The CRP also brings some unusual players into the mix who do not normally opine on agricultural policy. Because of the improved wildlife habitat benefits generated by the set-aside land, the CRP brings into the political fray the so-called “hook-and-bullet crowd,” including the National Rifle Association. Such groups support these programs because they create a more favorable environment for recreational hunting and fishing.
The USDA periodically announces a general sign-up for the CRP, and farmers who desire to enroll land in the program submit a bid detailing the environmental benefits that would be derived from entering that parcel into the CRP and the per-acre rate he or she would be willing to accept in lieu of continuing the land in cultivation. The USDA evaluates the submitted bids and accepts those it deems within established criteria and available at reasonable rates. Farmers have to compete to get farmland into the program, and the expected contribution of their bid to improving the environment is summarized through use of an Environmental Benefits Index or EBI. The USDA also regularly accepts specified parcels into the CRP, such as strips of land that border streams or rivers (called buffer strips) in a separate continuous enrollment process. The CRP is operated by USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
Within the CRP, state agencies have the opportunity to recruit farmers within regions such as watersheds or counties into a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), with all farmers adopting similar practices to meet a region-wide set of objectives. Eligible CREP practices can include (but do not require) land retirement. For example, the state of New York runs a CREP project aimed at improving water quality in the state’s 12 major watersheds by encouraging farmers to adopt practices such as installing buffer strips and planting cover crops, which help reduce agricultural chemical and animal waste runoff.
In periods of high crop prices, farm groups and other agricultural interests invariably try to convince Congress to make it easier for farmers to withdraw their land from the CRP before their contract expires and put it back into cultivation. In the 2014 farm bill, Congress obtained budgetary savings by capping the number of acres that could be enrolled at 24 million acres, expecting that interest in the program would be diminished due to high crop prices. Congress then raised it back to 27 million acres in the 2018 farm bill when it became apparent that lower commodity prices had made participation in the program attractive to more farmers.
Total CRP acres enrolled peaked in 2007 at more than 36 million acres. As of December 2018, there were only 22.6 million acres enrolled in CRP, the lowest level since 1987, the second year of the program.