Opportunities coming for land stewardship, says Vilsack

The USDA is days away from announcing “greater opportunities” for landowners to take fragile farmland out of production in exchange for an annual payment, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday.

The USDA is days away from announcing “greater opportunities” for landowners to take fragile farmland out of production in exchange for an annual payment, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday. Since early February, the Biden administration has been mulling how to stop a 13-year decline in enrollment in the Conservation Reserve, the largest U.S. land set-aside program.

Speaking on Illinois public radio, Vilsack said that the Conservation Reserve could play a role in President Biden’s plan to make American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

Some 20.8 million acres are enrolled at present in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), with contracts set to expire on 3 million acres on Sept. 30. While the 2018 farm law called for gradually raising the enrollment cap to 27 million acres, it lowered the annual rental rate to landowners to pay for the additional acres. Some senators said last fall that the USDA was being stingy with the incentives and bonuses it had previously offered to encourage participation.

“It’s something that I think we’re going to be addressing in the very near future … he needs to wait a week or two,” Vilsack said, responding to a caller’s question about the Conservation Reserve on Illinois Public Media’s The 21st talk show.

“But I think he’s going to see us respond to that need to create greater opportunities in CRP than before, and to take a look at how many acres makes sense,” said Vilsack. “The president has committed to a 30×30 effort: 30% of our working lands and public lands being dedicated in some form or fashion to conservation [by 2030]. I think that also plays to the strength of CRP. I think it’ll play a particularly important role in that.”

A USDA spokesperson said the Conservation Reserve was one of the most successful voluntary stewardship programs in the world “and will be an important tool in our toolbox as we battle climate change.”

A farm policy analyst said that reinstating incentives, such as rental rate bonuses and payments that share the cost of establishing vegetative cover, could be useful. The formula for rental rates is set by law, as is an overall limit on payments per landowner of $50,000 a year.

Earlier this week, companion bills were filed in the Senate and House for a 40 million-acre Conservation Reserve as part of supporting land stewardship on 100 million acres of farmland. The two Democratic sponsors, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, compared their legislation, aimed at climate change, to New Deal programs to help farmers combat soil loss during the Dust Bowl.

The Conservation Reserve was created in 1985, during the agricultural recession, to reduce soil erosion, protect water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat. Landowners are paid an annual rent if they agree to idle environmentally fragile land for 10 to 15 years. Enrollment peaked at 36.8 million acres in 2007 and has declined ever since. The program cost $1.8 billion this fiscal year. The USDA has an array of programs for stewardship that include conservation easements, incentives on working lands, and cost-sharing for installation of practices such as terraces.

“You focus on the opportunity side of the climate discussion,” replied Vilsack when Brian Mackey, host of The 21st, asked how he would persuade farmers to act against global warming. “If the United States government is willing to pay me, if the private marketplace is willing to pay me to take certain actions on my land that will sequester more carbon, that is an income source I don’t have today, that I’ll have in the future that basically allows me to have additional flexibility in my operation.”

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