The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced December 9 that it will partially restore incentive payments provided to landowners who enroll land in Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (Continuous CRP) contracts. The decision is a partial win for farmers, farmland owners and conservation organizations.
In a letter sent to the USDA Farm Service Agency in February 2020, the Izaak Walton League and 68 of our divisions and chapters asked USDA to fully restore incentive payments to landowners who enroll in Continuous CRP contracts that put in place high-value conservation practices like buffer strips along streams, new windbreaks or restored wetlands.
In the past, USDA offered a one-time Practice Incentive Payment of 40 percent of the cost of planting the new grasses or trees, plus a 20 percent bonus on annual rental payments and a one-time Signup Incentive Payment. Since 2017, USDA has reduced the 40 percent Practice Incentive Payment to five percent, eliminated the 20 percent rental bonus, reduced rental rates for contracts and eliminated other incentives for landowners to enroll land in the program. As a result, annual enrollment in Continuous CRP contracts plunged from over 1.3 million acres in 2016 and 2017 to less than one-third of that amount in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
In its December 9 announcement, USDA said it would increase the Practice Incentive Payment from five percent to 20 percent and begin offering a 10 percent rental bonus.
The 7.6 million acres currently in Continuous CRP contracts represent just over one-third of all CRP acres, and the partially restored incentive payments only apply to new Continuous CRP contracts. On average, farms with Continuous CRP contracts enroll just 32 acres in the program and receive less than $4,600 in annual CRP rental payments. The program's incentives are vital to enticing farmers to enroll small parcels of land in the program.
On October 1 this year, total CRP enrollment dropped by more than 1.1 million acres, to a total of just 20.8 million acres, as USDA again failed to enroll more acres in new CRP contracts than were lost as old contracts expired. The drop was larger than expected, and reports are that many landowners who applied for and were offered CRP contracts in 2020 declined to accept and sign the final contract because of the low payments.
The 20.8 million acres currently enrolled in CRP contracts are the lowest since 1987, when the program was just getting underway.
The new changes to partially restore the incentive payments are only part of what is needed to reinvigorate the program and capture the many water quality, wildlife habitat and soil conservation benefits it can provide. Congress increased the cap on acres that can be enrolled in CRP contracts from 24 million in 2018 to 25 million in 2021 and 27 million by 2023, but 2020 represents the 13th straight year enrollment has dropped.
The incoming president and secretary of agriculture can seize the opportunity to increase the soil, water, and wildlife benefits of the program by fully restoring the 40 percent Practice Incentive Payments, the 20 percent rental rate bonus and the other incentives previously offered to farmland owners. In addition, USDA can promote State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) projects like those that have already delivered benefits for the lesser prairie chicken, sage grouse, black ducks, rare frogs and amphibians, black bear, and a long list of grassland birds. USDA can also 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 degraded rivers.
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. CRP can continue to provide environmental benefits for years to come if USDA compensates farmers and landowners fairly for the value of their conservation practices.