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CRP Enrollment Falls for 13th Straight Year

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Buffer strip - Lynn Betts, NRCS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) dropped to less than 22 million acres in September. That’s the lowest level since 1987, when the program was just getting started, and it represents the 13th straight year of decline.

Conservation groups expect that number to drop even further when the next report comes out, since over 5.3 million acres of CRP contracts expired at the end of September. Many new contracts went into effect on October 1, but USDA says they enrolled just 3.4 million acres in regular CRP contracts in 2020, not quite 1.3 million acres in CRP Grasslands contracts, and barely 425,000 acres in Continuous CRP contracts, such as windbreaks and buffer strips along streams. That doesn’t make up for the acreage that was lost from the program just the day before, let alone the decline that's been going on for over a decade.

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

In return for providing all these conservation benefits, farmers get incentive payments under their CRP contracts. That’s especially important at a time when crop prices are low, trade wars have made for uncertain markets for agricultural commodities, and closures of schools and restaurants have made it difficult for some farmers to sell the fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy they’re producing.

Benefits at Risk

Congress understands the benefits of CRP for farmers as well as for our natural resources. In the 2018 Farm Bill, our legislators boosted the allowable amount of CRP contracts: The cap, which had been 24 million acres in 2018, will now rise to 27 million acres by 2023.

But despite the clear direction from Congress, CRP acres continue to decline – and that’s no accident. Starting in 2017, USDA slashed rental payments to landowners who enroll in the program, reduced payments that fund a share of the farmers’ cost of planting 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 Conservation Reserve Program’s future is going to be as strong as its past, we need USDA to fix the way it is implementing the program, by taking at least three corrective actions:

  • 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, black duck and black bear, along with rare frogs and amphibians 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 least pristine rivers

Enrollment in CRP will rebound if USDA offers fair payments to landowners. This year saw strong interest in the program, due to low crop prices, market uncertainties and pent-up demand from several years without an opportunity to enroll. But when farmers saw the low payment rates USDA is currently offering for 10-year CRP contracts, they decided in droves to not enroll their acres this year. That left the program with far fewer new contracts than what was needed to replace those that were expiring.

Opportunities for Recovery

According to USDA studies, the Conservation Reserve Program has kept more than 11 billion tons of soil from eroding. In 2018 alone, CRP reduced runoff of nitrogen from farm fields by over 500 million pounds, while reducing runoff of phosphorus by nearly 100 million pounds. By storing some 48 million tons of atmospheric carbon in the soil, the program has sequestered carbon equivalent to taking 9 million cars off the road annually.

Virtually every acre of Conservation Reserve Program land provides wildlife benefits. Millions of ducks nest in wet meadows and wetlands protected by CRP contracts in the Prairie Potholes and other regions. CRP acres provide habitat for grassland bird species that are in sharp decline because of the loss of habitat. Rare birds like the lesser prairie chicken benefit greatly from the program, as do more common birds like pheasants, bobwhite quail and wild turkey.

Monarch butterflies use CRP grasslands in their annual migration between the U.S. and Mexico.  Bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the flowering plants on CRP lands and from the reduction in pesticides used to manage the land.

Fish benefit from the reduced sediment, fertilizers and pesticides in local streams, especially in streams protected by grassed and wooded buffer strips that trap runoff from nearby fields. Under CRP, buffer strips have been added to more than 170,000 miles of streams and rivers.

Hunters and anglers benefit from the healthy fish and wildlife populations created by the program – and the program also provides more opportunities for sportsmen and women to pursue their favorite game. Many states and Tribes provide payments to landowners to open their CRP acres and other conservation lands to hunting, fishing, birding or hiking. Millions of acres of private farmland is now open for public access through these programs.

The benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program are impressive, and they all depend on the willingness of farmers and other landowners to enroll in the program and transform cropland into conservation land. To reverse the 13-year decline in CRP enrollment and meet the targets set by Congress, USDA needs to rethink and revise the incentives it provides to farmers.   

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