The Conservation Reserve Program  (CRP) is likely to be a key focal point during the development of the next farm bill in the coming months. In an era when Congress and the administration are looking to reduce the Federal budget deficit, there will be pressure to reduce the current annual expenditure of just under $2.0 billion on CRP, including about $1.7 billion in annual rental payments. Most experts expect the size of CRP to be reduced from the current maximum level of 32 million acres to around a maximum of 25 million acres in the next farm bill.
In 2011, CRP celebrated its 25th anniversary, and over two and a half decades of conservation success. CRP was originally established in the 1985 Farm Bill, and today has over 400,000 landowners participating, most of which are farmers and ranchers, and currently has over 29.6 million acres under some type of CRP contracts.
The USDA  has cited CRP as the largest and most important conservation  program in recent decades in this country. CRP continues to make major contributions to national efforts to improve water and air quality, prevent soil erosion, protect environmentally sensitive land, and enhance wildlife populations. Some of the benefits of CRP over the past two and a half decades cited by USDA include:
- 450 million tons of soil erosion reduced annually
- Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into rivers, streams and lakes in the U.S.
- 2 million acres of wetlands and buffers restored
- 2 million acres of stream bank protected along rivers and streams
- Enhanced populations of ducks, pheasants, quail and other wildlife species
- CRP provides over $1.7 billion/year to private landowners, which are dollars that help support local businesses and the local economy
- CRP is the largest private lands carbon sequestration program in the U.S. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.
- There are currently 43 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs  (CREP) in 32 states in targeted watersheds, which has generated over $ 1 billion in additional State and private funds for Federal conservation efforts through CRP
Another general CRP signup is being held in 2012, with the signup period continuing until April 6, 2012, at county FSA  Offices; however, it is not clear what level of acres will be offered or accepted for re-enrollment into the CRP program. Most experts feel that there will not be enough acres offered in 2012 to keep the current CRP enrollment at the current level of 29.6 acres after Sept. 30, 2012. The current CRP acreage cap of 32 million acres was set by the 2008 Farm Bill, which was a reduction from the maximum CRP acreage of 39 million acres from 2002 to 2008. General CRP contracts are typically 10-15 year contracts that expire Sept. 30 in a given year. Following is a list of expiring CRP acres in the U.S. on Sept. 30 for the next four years:
- 2012: 6.5 million acres
- 2013: 3.3 million acres
- 2014: 2.0 million acres
- 2015: 1.7 million acres
About 75% of the CRP acres in the U.S. are in 10 states: Texas, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, Missouri and South Dakota. The percentage of CRP acres expiring in 2012 from these 10 states is very similar, with North Dakota having 838,223 CRP acres expiring in 2012, followed by Texas with 827,750 expiring acres. Minnesota has 290,064 CRP acres expiring in 2012, while Iowa has 230,856 acres expiring.
The current annual CRP payment in the U.S. is $57.26/acre, with widely varying CRP rental rates from state to state, based on average land rental rates. Keeping CRP acres enrolled in Midwestern states, where average land rental rates are much higher, will likely be much more expensive in the future. Others feel we need to reduce CRP acreage in the future due to need for expanded U.S. grain production to meet the demand for more world food and increased renewable energy production in the U.S. On the other hand, CRP remains extremely popular with many farm, wildlife and environmental organizations, as well as with members of Congress.
The bottom-line is that the CRP program has over 25 years of success of protecting sensitive environmental lands, reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and enhancing wildlife. The CRP program is very popular with farmers, the general public, and with policy makers, and CRP will likely continue to be a major USDA conservation program. However, economic pressures, the need for renewable energy, and the worldwide need for more food may lead to some changes in the future for the CRP program, compared to what CRP has looked like in the past two and a half decades.
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]