Good Deeds Go Unrewarded: USDA Offers Smaller Incentives for Farm Conservation Practices

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
CREP sign

One of America’s largest and most successful land conservation programs is at risk.

For 35 years, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has rewarded farmers for taking millions of acres of highly erodible, environmentally sensitive cropland out of production – much of it land that should never have been plowed in the first place. Through CRP, farmers receive payments for planting their land with grasses, flowers, and trees that provide wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion, and virtually eliminate runoff of pesticides, fertilizer, and sediment into nearby streams and wetlands.

Unfortunately, recent decisions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) threaten the soil conservation, water quality, and fish and wildlife benefits delivered by one of our nation's best conservation programs. In the past three years, USDA has slashed annual  payments to landowners who enroll in the program, reduced financial assistance that helps farmers establish grassland plants and trees, and ignored or even hampered special initiatives that use state and local money to stretch federal dollars and focus the program where it can do the most good.

If the CRP’s future is going to be as successful as its past, conservationists need to speak up and tell USDA to fix the way it is implementing the program. At a minimum, USDA needs to:

  • Restore incentive payments for farmers who agree to plant buffer strips along streams, restore wetlands, plant windbreaks, and adopt other measures that provide high-value benefits for our soil, water, and wildlife
  • Promote State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) projects like those that have already delivered benefits for the lesser prairie chicken, sage grouse, and black duck, as well as for rare frogs and amphibians, black bears, and a long list of grassland birds
  • Support Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) initiatives that leverage state and local money to help landowners plant buffer strips, restore wetlands, and reduce polluted runoff in our most unhealthy rivers

February 4 is the deadline to send comments to USDA, which is seeking input on the rules it is putting in place to manage the CRP. Need help writing a comment? See the example at the bottom of this article.

A Legacy of Success... and a Future of Failure?

Studies of the CRP and the habitat it has created show that the program has:

  • Boosted America's duck population by several million ducks per year
  • Protected more than 170,000 miles of streams and rivers by enabling the establishment of grassland or wooded buffer strips, which trap 85% or more of the fertilizer and sediment runoff that would otherwise end up in those streams
  • Reduced soil erosion by over 8 billion tons since 1986
  • Produced millions of pheasants
  • Provided habitat for dozens of species of grassland birds

But these benefits can continue only if landowners agree to take valuable cropland out of production and instead enroll it in 10- or 15-year CRP contracts. With CRP annual payments now well below what farmers could earn by planting crops on the land or renting to another planter, few landowners are likely to sign up for a contract.

In addition, USDA is now paying a smaller share of the cost of planting grasses or trees for many contracts, leaving landowners to shoulder more of the upfront costs of participating in CRP. And USDA has been actively discouraging state agencies, conservation organizations, and others willing to step in and pick up part of the farmer’s costs through SAFE and CREP partnerships.

Rather than building on the proud conservation legacy of the CRP, USDA has at best failed to reach for the full potential of the program, and at worst has gotten in the way of continued success.

Rather than building on the proud conservation legacy of the CRP, USDA has at best failed to reach for the full potential of the program, and at worst has gotten in the way of continued success. USDA’s shortcomings are apparent in the way it has handled Continuous CRP contracts, the high-value contracts that include SAFE and CREP partnerships as well as buffer strips along streams, windbreaks, and restored wetlands. Continuous CRP contracts make up only about one-third of all CRP contracts, but they provide some of the program’s highest-value benefits for water quality, fish, and wildlife.

In 2015, USDA enrolled over 872,000 acres in Continuous CRP. That number rose to 1.35 million acres in 2016, followed by a further 1.35 million acres in in the first few months of 2017 alone. In May of 2017, enrollment was temporarily closed when the program bumped up against the Congressionally imposed cap of 24 million total enrolled acres. Enthusiasm for CRP was booming.

But when enrollment was re-opened in the summer of 2018, USDA cut back on the kinds of contracts it would accept, and reduced the incentives and other payments made to farmers. As a result, just 292,490 acres were enrolled in Continuous CRP in the second half of 2018, less than one-fourth of the acres enrolled in either of the two previous years. Enrollment dropped even more in 2019, when farmers sought contracts for just over 245,000 acres – the lowest number in over 20 years, despite low crop prices that helped to make CRP an attractive alternative.

When USDA recently re-opened enrollment for Continuous CRP contracts, it stuck with the same formula from 2018 and 2019, and the initial response from landowners has been tepid. It's too soon to say whether farmers are interested in signing up for General CRP contracts, which typically cover whole fields. But with the current General contract enrollment period ending on February 28, we'll know within the next several months how many landowners were willing to take their fields out of production in exchange for smaller and smaller incentive payments.

Take action now – tell USDA to fix CRP

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Cover photo courtesy of USDA.

Need help writing a comment? You can paste this example into the submission form.

Dear Administrator Fordyce,

I am writing to provide comments on the Conservation Reserve Program Interim Final Rule. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been one of the largest, most successful conservation programs in our country’s history. For 35 years, the CRP has helped landowners reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and restore wildlife habitat on tens of millions of acres of farmland.

Unfortunately, USDA plans to put that great conservation legacy at risk. As you implement the Conservation Reserve Program and consider changes to the Interim Final Rule, I urge you to:

1. Restore incentive payments for farmers willing to adopt high-value buffer strips, windbreaks, wetland restoration, wildlife habitat, and similar conservation measures. That includes restoring the Practice Incentive Payments to 40% or 50%, and restoring the 20% incentive payments on annual rental rates for high-value water quality and wildlife contracts.

2. Restore the State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program under the Continuous Signup CRP, allowing incentive payments to apply for practices that benefit targeted fish and wildlife species. Greater Prairie Chicken, bobwhite quail, sage grouse, rare bats and frogs, ducks, and many grassland birds all see huge benefits from carefully targeted SAFE projects, and they should be promoted, not discouraged.

3. Promote, don’t discourage, state, local, and Tribal partnerships. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program leverages state and other funding to focus CRP contracts where they will do the most good to solve state-level water, soil, and wildlife problems. Instead of adopting high requirements for providing a cash match that would be difficult for many Tribes, non-profits, and local agencies, USDA should actively promote CREP agreements with state and other entities to bring together new conservation funds to address these difficult issues.

The Conservation Reserve Program has been one of our country’s most successful conservation programs. Please ensure that it continues to provide the highest soil conservation, water quality, and fish and wildlife benefits by adopting these important changes as you write and implement program rules.

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