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How the Conservation Reserve Program can address climate change

The best solutions may be right in front of you.

This summer, we received a report card on the management of our Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land in Buffalo County, Nebraska. The Status Review Report from USDA gave us good marks. The grass and forbs on the place were rated as fully established. Noxious weeds are a non-issue. “A great stand of native grasses,” the report says. And as for the trees, “an excellent windbreak established.”

We have had land enrolled in the CRP since the federal program’s inception in 1986, and after 35 years, there is clear evidence of successful soil, water, and wildlife conservation.

An ephemeral gully that once ran through the farm has been healed by thick stands of prairie grass. Soil erosion and water runoff throughout the farm have been halted. In recent years, an 11-acre stand of pollinator habitat has bloomed with wildflowers and native grasses, attracting butterflies, bees, and grassland birds. The windbreaks planted around the old farmstead have reduced soil erosion further and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. Our up-to-date bird inventory includes more than 106 species.

Read More: Get a bird's-eye view of your farm

So, with an opportunity to re-enroll the land in the CRP next year, it seems time to take stock of where things stand and try to look at the big picture. Currently, in rough terms, the farm is about half CRP and half row crops and forages. It’s a symmetry that works for the land. For nature and for the farmer.

‘”I like it just the way it is,” farm operator Kevin Schroeder says. So do I.

Photo by John Walter

Is CRP a climate failure?

While the CRP may look like a success story on our tiny patch of ground, the program has been criticized by some as an expensive payout to farmers with no lasting public value. One recent report, for example, cites the program’s failure to discourage farmers and landowners from plowing up the land once contracts expire. The environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration, are lost once farmers exit the program and return the land to crop production. 

Moreover, farmers in recent years have been less willing of late to buy into the program. USDA recently announced it has accepted 2.8 million acres into this year’s CRP sign-up, well short of its 4-million-acre goal. The agency has ramped up the program, hoping to entice more farmers to enroll. New incentives include higher rental payments and additional payments for “climate-smart” practices. The program is being touted for its potential to help offset agriculture’s greenhouse gases and sequester carbon in soils maintained in grass, trees, wetlands, and wildlife habitat. 

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

In the new administration, USDA has put considerable emphasis on encouraging practices that address climate change, including CRP enrollment. But some experts are skeptical of the program’s soil carbon sequestration value if most CRP land is tilled soon after farmers’ 10- to 15-year contracts with USDA end. Historically, as many as 80% of farmers converted their CRP land back into cropland, according to one study. In another report, it’s estimated that only 3% of CRP land stayed in some form of conservation after the contracts ended.

And once that conserved land is tilled, any sequestered carbon is released back into the atmosphere. “Even a single tillage event can rapidly destroy an accumulated soil [carbon] benefit,” says one CRP study. 

In the end, though, I’d argue that the CRP isn’t broken and can be further refined to make it an even more useful tool for addressing climate change and providing other environmental benefits. It has proved, at least on our place, to be a bird in hand that works, not just some abstract carbon banking policy ideas that are mainly still in the bush.

I agree with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s statement about the CRP: “Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of you.”

Photo by John Walter

And while the new incentives and program enhancements are promising, for what it’s worth, I have some thoughts about what might be done to further improve the CRP:

  • Simplify program sign-up and management rules. A farmer survey could help identify barriers to participation. As an example, during the last sign-up, we decided not to re-enroll a field with a windbreak because we would have been required to trim branches from the the bottom of the pines. Ostensibly, this was to benefit upland game birds. Not many farmers are likely to get into the forestry management business like that and it didn’t appeal to Kevin and me either. That field remains in hay production. Thanks to Kevin, we’ve been able to navigate the management requirements in fine form, but because of various hurdles, he says many local farmers simply have thrown up their arms and exited or avoided the program.
  • Improve the long-term economic incentives. Another possible barrier to participation is that the prospect of higher grain prices eventually augers against the CRP. Why not explore the potential of a variable rate payment annually indexed to grain prices? It could work like flexible cash rents. You’d bid in a floor on the annual payment.
  • Consider extending some contracts to 20 or 30 years, perhaps with more flexible opt-out provisions, in case more land is needed for growing crops, or if farm succession issues occur.
  • Encourage experimentation with perennial crops, including grasses for energy production and perennial grain crops like kernza that can be used for human and livestock food.
  • Research soil sequestration on a wide range of CRP lands so those lands that bring the most benefits could be better targeted. Drainage, climate, slope, texture, and mineralogy all influence how much carbon a soil can sequester. And every soil likely has a carbon saturation point. Even our small farm has a wide range of soil types that could be compared for carbon banking value.
  • Form additional partnerships for increased tree planting and wetlands restorations to provide technical assistance, rootstock, and planting support for landowners. Such climate-smart practices are already being funded on working lands in new USDA partnership programs.
  • Create local awards and recognition programs to participants who have conducted exemplary management of their CRP acres.
  • Conduct case studies of successful CRP contracts. The idea would be to better understand the combination of resources that provide successful management involving landowners, farmers, government agency personnel, and third-party partners.

Take a quick tour: 35 years of CRP, a photo gallery.

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