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After years of shrinking, Conservation Reserve to expand this year

The federal program that pays landowners to take environmentally fragile land out of crop production to prevent erosion, protect water quality, and preserve wildlife habitat will expand for the first time this year after losing ground annually since 2007. The USDA said on Monday that it expected a net gain in acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, which was retooled in April to help slow climate change.

By the end of this year, as many as 4 million acres could be added to the reserve, now at its smallest size, 20.6 million acres, since 1987. The reserve, which was created in 1986 during the agricultural recession, pays landowners an annual rent in exchange for idling fragile land for 10 or 15 years. It is the largest U.S. land diversion program.

The USDA offered higher rental rates and larger incentive payments this year to attract land to the reserve amid high commodity prices that are encouraging farmers to expand production. The lures included a 10% inflation adjustment in rental rates and the creation of a Climate-Smart Practice Incentive of 3% to 10% based on the activity adopted, such as planting grasses or restoring wetlands.

“The changes we made this spring put us on the path to reverse this trend” of declining enrollment, said administrator Zach Ducheneaux of the Farm Service Agency, which operates the Conservation Reserve as well as the USDA’s crop subsidy programs.

More than 3 million acres will be enrolled this year, said the USDA, which would exceed the 3 million acres that will leave the reserve when contracts expire on Sept. 30.

The additions will include 1.9 million acres accepted through the so-called general sign-up, for large tracts of land, that ended on July 23. Another 897,000 acres have been accepted so far this year through “continuous” enrollment, which is open year-round for high-priority work on small amounts of land, such as buffer strips along streams or wellhead protection. Continuous enrollment, which has averaged 128,000 acres a month, is already the largest since 2017. There was strong interest in the Grasslands option of the Conservation Reserve in the sign-up that ended last Friday; results will be announced in coming weeks. About 900,000 acres were enrolled last year in the Grassland option.

“We may well yet reach 4 million” acres, said a USDA official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The USDA set a goal just before Earth Day of enrolling 4 million acres this year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Conservation Reserve, popular in farm country, was an obvious tool for achieving climate mitigation. “We need to invest in [the reserve] and let it do what it does best — preserve topsoil, sequester carbon, and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Despite the upturn, the reserve will be much smaller than Congress directed in the 2018 farm policy law, which said the Conservation Reserve could grow to 25 million acres by this year and to 27 million acres by 2023. Enrollment was capped at 24 million acres in the 2014 farm bill.

“At a time of high commodity prices, it’s probably not a big surprise that interest in the program was not as great as some people hoped,” said Pat Westhoff, director of the FAPRI think tank at the University of Missouri, referring to the 1.9 million acres accepted through the general sign-up. “Without the new higher rental rates and other incentives, enrollment probably would have been even lower. The next time there’s a general enrollment period, it will probably matter a lot where commodity prices appear to be headed.”

Lawmakers reduced per-acre payment rates for the Conservation Reserve in the 2018 farm bill so they could pay for the expanded acreage. But enrollment continued to fall. This year’s increases were intended to make the reserve more attractive.

The USDA homepage for the Conservation Reserve is available here.

A one-page summary of enrollments and payment rates for the reserve is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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