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USDA Expands and Renews Conservation Reserve Program in Effort to Boost Enrollment and Address Climate Change
USDA will open enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with higher payment rates, new incentives, and a more targeted focus on the program’s role in climate change mitigation. Additionally, USDA is announcing investments in partnerships to increase climate-smart agriculture, including $330 million in 85 Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) projects and $25 million for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials.
Secretary Vilsack made the announcement April 21, 2021 at the White House National Climate Task Force meeting to demonstrate USDA’s commitment to putting American agriculture and forestry at the center of climate-smart solutions to address climate change. The Administration is working to leverage USDA conservation programs for climate mitigation, including continuing to invest in innovative partnership programs like RCPP and On-Farm Trials as well as strengthening programs like CRP to enhance their impacts.
Recently released data from USDA’s Farm Service Agency indicates that as of September 2020, 21.9 million acres were enrolled in CRP, with annual rental payments totaling $1.795 billion. Compared to September 2019, 400,000 fewer acres were enrolled in CRP. USDA’s goal is to enroll up to 4 million new acres in CRP by raising rental payment rates and expanding the number of incentivized environmental practices allowed under the program. CRP is one of the world’s largest voluntary conservation programs with a long track record of preserving topsoil, sequestering carbon, and reducing nitrogen runoff, as well providing healthy habitat for wildlife.
CRP is a powerful tool when it comes to climate mitigation, and acres currently enrolled in the program mitigate more than 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If USDA reaches its goal of enrolling an additional 4 million acres into the program, it will mitigate an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent and prevent 90 million pounds of nitrogen and 33 million tons of sediment from running into our waterways each year.
New Climate-Smart Practice Incentive
To target the program on climate change mitigation, FSA is introducing a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive for CRP general and continuous signups that aims to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate-Smart CRP practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat, and wetland restoration. The Climate-Smart Practice Incentive is annual, and the amount is based on the benefits of each practice type.
Higher Rental Rates and New Incentives
In 2021, CRP is capped at 25 million acres, and currently 20.8 million acres are enrolled. Furthermore, the cap will gradually increase to 27 million acres by 2023. To help increase producer interest and enrollment, FSA is:
- Adjusting soil rental rates. This enables additional flexibility for rate adjustments, including a possible increase in rates where appropriate.
- Increasing payments for Practice Incentives from 20% to 50%. This incentive for continuous CRP practices is based on the cost of establishment and is in addition to cost share payments.
- Increasing payments for water quality practices. Rates are increasing from 10% to 20% for certain water quality benefiting practices available through the CRP continuous signup, such as grassed waterways, riparian buffers, and filter strips.
- Establishing a CRP Grassland minimum rental rate. This benefits more than 1,300 counties with rates currently below the minimum.
Enhanced Natural Resource Benefits
To boost impacts for natural resources, FSA is:
- Moving State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) practices to the CRP continuous signup. Unlike the general signup, producers can sign up year-round for the continuous signup and be eligible for additional incentives.
- Establishing National Grassland Priority Zones. This aims to increase enrollment of grasslands in migratory corridors and environmentally sensitive areas.
- Making Highly Erodible Land Initiative (HELI) practices available in both the general and continuous signups.
Expanding Prairie Pothole Soil Health and Watershed Programs
CRP has two pilot programs ― the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) and the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers 30-year contracts (CLEAR30).
- For SHIPP, which is a short-term option (3, 4, or 5-year contracts) for farmers to plant cover on less productive agricultural lands, FSA is holding a 2021 signup in the Prairie Pothole states with applications being accepted until July 16.
- The CLEAR30 pilot, a long-term option through CRP, will be expanded from the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay pilot regions to nationwide.
Conversion of row crop lands into perennial grasses will benefit declining populations of many grassland-dependent species in addition to helping address climate concerns. Pollinators will benefit as well, especially if landowners pursue programs that incentivize native flowering plants on the landscape.
It remains to be seen whether these changes will convince landowners and producers to enroll acres in 2021, a year that appears to be on track to have high, perhaps record-setting, commodity prices. Offsetting the appeal of current commodity prices are the challenges of large-scale drought and other extreme weather events that affected crop planting and establishment in many areas of the country. The recent program changes are a good response to the declining participation seen in recent years and will hopefully help to increase enrollment.