The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in recent weeks has unveiled several Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) initiatives that most observers believe are designed to maximize current farm program spending levels (the baseline) that will be taken into account by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) when determining how successful the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are in meeting lower budget targets as part of the farm bill process. In addition, some of the recent USDA initiatives are focused on targeting the most environmentally sensitive land in an effort to discourage such acres from being restored to production given higher market prices and a potentially lower CRP cap under a new farm bill. These initiatives also allow the Obama administration to cater to the hunting and fishing lobby during the presidential election year. Since taking office, the Obama administration has enrolled more than 8 million acres in the CRP.
Driven primarily by budget considerations, projections are that the current 32-million-acre CRP cap could be reduced to 26 million or fewer acres to provide funding for conservation initiatives for working farmlands and other farm program income supports. USDA on Feb. 1 announced another CRP general signup that began March 12 and runs through April 6. Slightly more than 29 million acres currently are enrolled in the CRP, with 6.5 million acres covered by contracts scheduled to expire on Sept. 30.
One such USDA initiative announced on March 2 provides an "opportunity" for producers to enroll a total of 1 million acres in a new CRP initiative designed to preserve grasslands and wetlands. USDA said this program's goal is to increase enrollment of environmentally sensitive land through targeted signups within the existing 32-million-acre CRP cap for specific acres that benefit duck-nesting habitat, upland gamebirds, wetlands, pollinators and wildlife. Under this program, landowners will be eligible to use continuous signup procedures to enroll up to 100,000 acres for pollinators; 200,000 acres for wetland restoration; 400,000 acres for grasslands benefitting wildlife at the state and local levels; and 150,000 acres each for duck-nesting and upland gamebird habitat. The program also includes an up-to-$150-per-acre incentive payment to enroll such acres, up from the current $100-per-acre incentive payment. "With high crop prices, this approach to target our most sensitive lands is essential if we want to maintain the substantial benefits of CRP while ensuring that productive farmlands continue to produce the food and fiber Americans and the world needs," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in announcing the program. Click here to access a USDA press release on this program.
Another initiative -- announced Feb. 21 -- is designed to enroll up to 750,000 acres of what USDA called the nation's most highly erodible croplands. Announced during the Pheasants Forever annual convention in Kansas City, Mo., the program will be targeted at cropland with an erodibility index of 20 or greater (compared to the minimum 8 erodibility index required to be eligible to bid land for entry under CRP general signups). This program also is available under the CRP's continuous signup procedures, starting later this summer. Click here to access a USDA press release on this program.