USDA  has announced a general Conservation Reserve Program  (CRP) signup from March 12 through April 6, 2012, at county Farm Service Agency  (FSA) offices throughout the Country. There are approximately 6.5 million acres of CRP land with expiring contracts on Sept. 30, 2012. General CRP sign-ups were also held in 2011, when 3.75 million acres were accepted into CRP, and in 2010, when about 4.2 million acres were accepted into CRP. In 2011, the CRP celebrated its 25th anniversary, and over two and a half decades of conservation success. CRP was originally established in the 1985 Farm Bill. Today, there are over 400,000 landowners participating in CRP, most of which are farmers and ranchers, and there are currently just fewer than 29.7 million acres under some type of CRP contract.
The bids that are offered into CRP for 2012 will be evaluated, using the environmental benefits index  (EBI). USDA plans to target the most environmentally sensitive land with the 2012 CRP signup, in order to reduce soil erosion, protect water and air quality and to enhance wildlife protection and carbon sequestration. There will continue to be special focus on buffer strips near rivers and streams. Following are the EBI factors used by FSA to evaluate CRP contract offers:
- Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff and leaching.
- Wildlife habitat benefits from land covers on CRP contract acreage.
- On-farm benefits from reduced soil erosion.
- Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion.
- Benefits that will likely endure beyond the CRP contract period.
- Cost per acre.
Farmers with existing CRP contracts that are expiring in 2012 will have no preferential status for keeping their land in the CRP program this year, and must submit a new CRP bid to be re-enrolled in the CRP program. Land that is currently not enrolled in CRP may also be offered up for enrollment in CRP for 2012. The CRP contracts that are accepted will become effective on Oct. 1, 2012, with the first CRP payments in September 2013.
USDA continues to work with state and local FSA offices to adjust annual rental rates for the CRP program, based on current local trends in land rental rates. CRP annual rental rates are available at county FSA offices. The current average CRP land rental in the U.S. is $57.29/acre; however, CRP rental rates vary widely from state to state. Most CRP annual land rental rates in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa are considerably higher than the U.S. average rate. USDA tries to keep the maximum CRP acreage in any given county at 25% of the total tillable acres in that county. However, USDA does have the authority to exceed that limit to meet highly erodible land requirements, and if there is deemed to be no adverse economic impacts from the added CRP acreage in that county.
USDA recently announced a separate CRP enrollment in 2012 of 750,000 acres that will target the nation’s most highly erodible cropland that has a soil erodibility index of 20 or greater. These acres will be offered under the continuous CRP program, and will not be part of the competitive EBI ranking process that will be utilized for the 2012 general CRP signup. Soil survey and geographical information system (GIS) data will be used to determine eligibility for this separate CRP enrollment.
In early March, USDA announced another incentive program to encourage CRP enrollment for environmentally sensitive land. USDA will be offering a one-time CRP signing bonus payment of $100-150/acre for land that is enrolled into CRP that specifically protects wetlands and enhances wildlife habitat. This incentive payment will be available for both CRP land that is being re-enrolled into the program, as well as new acres being enrolled into CRP.
As of Jan. 31, 2012, there was a total of just fewer than 29.7 million acres enrolled in the CRP program, which is down from 31.1 million acres on Sept. 30, 2009, and down 7.1 million acres, from 36.8 million acres on Sept. 30, 2007. Currently there are approximately 24.4 million acres under general CRP contracts, 4.0 million acres under continuous CRP contracts, and 1.3 million acres under CREP contracts. Signup for Continuous CRP is on-going, and will likely continue to be on-going under the new farm bill. Continuous CRP targets the most sensitive environmental land areas, such as filter strips, buffers, wetlands, etc. The CREP Program is a CRP partnership with state conservation programs, which target specific watersheds.
In 2011, CRP contracts expired on 4.4 million acres, but landowners offered only 3.75 million acres for enrollment into CRP during the general CRP signup period. Of that total, USDA accepted approximately 2.8 million acres into the CRP program, resulting in a net reduction of about 1.6 million acres. Strong crop prices and net farm incomes from crop production in 2011, along with increasing cash rental rates, probably discouraged some landowners from re-enrolling some crop land into CRP in 2011. Continued strong crop prices and further increases in cash rental rates in 2012 are likely to again affect the number of expiring CRP acres that are offered for re-enrollment during the CRP sign-up period in 2012. With over 6.5 million CRP acres set to expire in 2012, a CRP enrollment similar to 2011 would reduce the total CRP acreage to under 26 million acres by the end of 2012.
For more information on the general CRP signup, or the continuous CRP, landowners should contact their county FSA office, or go to the CRP website .
Editor’s note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at [email protected]