Conservation Reserve shrinks to smallest size since 1988

An unofficial count says that 20 million acres are enrolled at present, the lowest figure since 1988, when the program was just three years old.

Lawmakers decided as part of the 2018 farm policy law to expand the voluntary Conservation Reserve, which pays landowners an annual rent in exchange for idling fragile farmland for 10 years or longer. Although the expansion was expected to be popular — offering steady income after years of low commodity prices — it hasn’t panned out. Enrollment continues a decline that began in 2007.

An unofficial count says that 20 million acres are enrolled at present, the lowest figure since 1988, when the program was just three years old. The 2018 farm bill said that up to 24.5 million acres could be enrolled this year, en route to a maximum of 27 million acres in 2023. When the farm bill took effect, the limit was 24 million acres, though actual enrollment was lower. The goal of the Conservation Reserve, the largest U.S. land idling program, is to reduce soil erosion, protect water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat.

Lower rental rates may be discouraging sign-up. In the past, USDA rental rates matched the local average rental rate. Now rent is set at 85% of the local average for land that enters through so-called general enrollments — when anyone can offer land — and at 90% for land entering through the continuous enrollment option for high-priority practices — such as windbreaks and filter strips — on small pieces of land.

The USDA should offer incentives, including rental rate incentives, to landowners to increase enrollment, said five Democratic senators in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week. The Trump administration has not offered rental incentives, although its predecessors did, and it greatly reduced the Practice Incentive Payments that share the cost of establishing vegetative cover, they said.

“At a time when we should be encouraging producers to participate, these changes to [the Conservation Reserve] are taking away incentives for farmers to enroll in the program,” said the senators.

Congress lowered the rental rates as a way to pay for additional acreage because there was no further farm bill funding for expanding land stewardship programs. The USDA decided on its own to reduce incentives.

“My guess is we have a long-term problem,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), in assessing the impact of lower rental rates. “Now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

The farm bill requires the USDA to hold a general sign-up every year so there will be an annual opportunity to enroll land in the CRP. The continuous sign-up option, which accounts for one-third of land in the reserve, is always available, too. USDA officials were not immediately available to comment on the Conservation Reserve.

At the end of September, 21.925 million acres were enrolled in the reserve. Contracts expired on 5.4 million acres on Sept. 30, though the expirations were offset in part by the entry of 3.4 million acres. Overall, there was a net decline of nearly 2 million acres with the start of fiscal 2021 on Oct. 1, putting enrollment at about 20 million acres.

The USDA is expected to release its final rule for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which shares the cost of reducing runoff from fields and feedlots. The 2018 farm bill directs more EQIP outlays to “practices” that conserve soil and water on farmland and less to livestock operations. EQIP funding would grow to $2 billion a year under the 2018 farm bill, up from the previous $1.75 billion.

Earlier in October, the USDA finalized its farm bill revisions to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which pays farmers to practice environmental stewardship on working lands. The 2018 farm bill limits growth of the CSP by setting a dollar limit on spending rather than an acreage limit on enrollment. Annual funding would rise to $1 billion in 2023, up from $700 million in 2019. The NSAC says the final rule contains flaws, such as barring farmers from applying for CSP contracts for two years if they are denied a renewal of an existing contract.

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