USDA  has announced a General Conservation Reserve Program  (CRP) sign-up from March 14 through April 15, 2011, at county Farm Service Agency  (FSA) offices throughout the country. The last General CRP sign-up was in 2010, when about 4.2 million acres were accepted into CRP. It was the first General CRP sign-up since 2006. The CRP program was created in the 1985 Farm Bill, and is celebrating its 25th year of existence in 2011. Since its inception, CRP has reduced soil erosion by an estimated 622 million tons, restored more than 2 million acres of wetlands, provided natural habitat for wildlife and removed millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air.
The bids that are offered into CRP for 2011 will be evaluated, using the environmental benefits index (EBI). USDA plans to target the most environmentally sensitive land with the 2011 CRP sign-up, 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.
Producers with existing CRP contracts that expire in 2011 will have no preferential status for keeping their land in CRP this year, and must re-submit a new CRP bid to be re-enrolled in the program. Land that is currently not enrolled in CRP may also be offered up for enrollment in CRP for 2011. The CRP contracts that are accepted will become effective on Oct. 1, 2011, with the first CRP payments in September 2012.
USDA continues to work with state and local FSA offices to adjust annual rental rates for CRP, based on current local trends in land rental rates. CRP annual rental rates are available at county FSA offices. The average CRP land rental in the U.S. is around $50/acre; however, most CRP annual land rental rates in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa are considerably higher than that amount. 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 has also implemented the CRP State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement  (SAFE) program, with special wildlife enhancement programs. Nationally, the CRP-SAFE program includes 150,000 acres of wildlife habitat, as well as 64,000 acres for the Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative and 100,000 acres for the Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds Initiative. USDA is currently in a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Pheasants Forever organization to identify and create more opportunities to conserve plant and animal species and their habitat.
The 2008 Farm Bill  lowered the maximum acreage enrollment for the CRP to 32 million acres, which was a reduction from 36.4 million acres in the 2002 Farm Bill, and 39 million acres prior to that. As of Nov. 30, 2010, there was a total of 31.2 million acres enrolled in CRP, which is down from 36.8 million acres on Sept. 30, 2007. According to USDA, CRP contracts will expire on an additional 4.4 million acres on Sept. 30, 2011, 6.5 million acres on Sept. 30, 2012 and 3.3 million acres on Sept. 30, 2013. So, it is quite likely that USDA could implant future General CRP sign-ups beyond 2011, possibly in 2012 and 2013, in order to maintain the total CRP acreage at close to the maximum allowable acreage level. Minnesota currently has 1.62 million acres enrolled in the CRP program, while Iowa has 1.65 million CRP acres.
Landowners may also enroll in the Continuous CRP at anytime at county FSA offices. The Continuous CRP targets only the most sensitive environmental areas, such as buffer strips near rivers and streams, lakeshore property and wetlands protection. The Continuous CRP contracts are 10-15 years in length, and cost-share programs are available to establish the required ground covers.
For more information on the General CRP sign-up, or the Continuous CRP, landowners should contact their county FSA office, or go online .
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]