Soil Matters

Increasing CRP Enrollment Good for Wildlife, Soil and Water

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Doe and fawn SD by Dennis Larson, NRCS

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced August 23 that it will enroll 2.8 million acres of land in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts. That’s a good sign that the agency is beginning to reverse the 13-year decline in farmland enrolled in one of our nation’s premier conservation programs.

“Despite Congress raising the enrollment target in the 2018 Farm Bill, there have been decreases in enrollment for the past two years,” said USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux. “The changes we made this spring have put us on the path to reverse this trend.

“Even with the improved direction,” Ducheneaux added, “USDA will still be about 4 million acres below the enrollment target.  The CRP benefits for producers, sportsmen, wildlife, conservation and climate are numerous and well documented. We cannot afford to let them be left on the table.” 

The CRP benefits for producers, sportsmen, wildlife, conservation and climate are numerous and well documented. We cannot afford to let them be left on the table.Zach Ducheneaux, USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator

In February 2020, 69 IWLA Divisions and Chapters joined the National Izaak Walton League in calling on USDA to take three simple actions. First, USDA should restore the incentive payments it reduced or eliminated in 2017 for landowners who adopt high-value conservation practices. Second, the agency should restore the priority it had put on State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement enrollments. And third, the department should better promote state, local and Tribal partnerships in delivering the Conservation Reserve Program.

As the recent announcement shows, the new leadership at USDA is responding to the requests from the League and other conservation organizations. They boosted incentive payments and restored the priority for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement contracts. Agency officials tell us they are also looking for ways to better promote partnerships. For example, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program agreements could leverage federal CRP contracts with state and local funding. That would help to focus conservation efforts where they are most needed.

In September 2007, there were 36.8 million acres of land in CRP contracts. The conservation practices on those acres conserved soil on highly erodible land, reduced runoff of agrichemicals, and provided habitat for deer, grassland birds, and other wildlife. After 13 years of decreasing enrollment, today just 20.6 million acres are still supporting these vital benefits. That’s a decline of 44 percent.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency said it had accepted almost 1.9 million acres through its 2021 General CRP signup. Most of the new enrollments are whole cropland fields with highly erodible soil. Those fields will now be planted with grasses, shrubs or trees under 10-year contracts.

The agency has also accepted over 897,000 acres of land so far this year through its 2021 CRP Continuous signup. That’s more than twice as many acres as last year and three times as many as in 2018 and 2019. Continuous CRP enrollments average 15-20 acres per contract and typically cover just part of a crop field. These small areas usually become buffer strips of grasses or tress along a stream, filter strips of grass within fields, or windbreaks. The contracts and their benefits last 10-15 years.

USDA will soon announce the results of its 2021 Grassland CRP signup, which closed last week. Grassland CRP contracts protect vulnerable grasslands from development and provide for improved management to restore the grasslands. USDA expects that new Grassland CRP contracts will push the total number of acres enrolled this year over 3 million. That will more than offset the CRP contracts that are expiring at the end of September.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA can enroll up to 25 million acres in CRP contracts in 2021. That cap increases to 27 million acres by 2023. Right now, USDA is on track to increase enrollment to about 21 million total acres by the end of this year.

That’s a good first step – but don’t underestimate the challenge of enrolling acres in CRP contracts right now. Crop prices are high, yields are good, and competition among farmers for land is strong. All of that makes it easy for farmers to keep their land in production instead of setting it aside for conservation. Farmers know the importance of protecting soil health and water quality, but it’s difficult for them to commit to 10 or 15 years of high-impact conservation practices when other options are more profitable.

If we can overcome that challenge, the benefits will be enormous. Reaching full CRP enrollment by signing up 4 million more acres by 2023 would mean…

  • 30 million fewer tons of soil eroding off of farm fields and ending up as sediment in our streams and reservoirs every year
  • 90 million fewer pounds of nitrogen pollution per year entering our rivers, lakes and estuaries
  • Habitat to support millions more grassland birds
  • 3 million more tons of CO2 safely stored in the soil each year

With the new incentive payments, USDA has found a better balance for paying landowners. The new system rewards farmers for adopting conservation practices, while not creating unfair competition for producers looking for land. With a renewed commitment to building partnerships with state, local, and Tribal agencies and non-governmental organizations, USDA is putting the Conservation Reserve Program on solid ground for the future.

Learn more about USDA conservation programs