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USDA harnesses Conservation Reserve for climate mitigation

Some 20.8 million acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve at the moment, well below current limit of 25 million acres, which will rise to 27 million acres by 2023.

On the day before Earth Day, the USDA said it will offer higher rental rates and larger incentive payments to landowners who agree to idle environmentally fragile farmland and introduced a new payment for climate-smart practices to slow climate change. The expansions would boost spending on the Conservation Reserve by $300 million or more annually — an 18% increase, said the White House on Wednesday.

The USDA said it was putting a sharper focus on climate mitigation by the Conservation Reserve, the largest federal land idling program. It set a goal of attracting 4 million acres into the reserve in coming months.

President Biden was expected to propose a 50% cut in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 at a U.S.-called climate summit on Thursday and Friday, reported the Associated Press. He wants U.S. agriculture to be first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions. For the most part, American farm groups say they are willing to act on climate change if the work is voluntary and market-driven. Agriculture is responsible for about 10% of U.S. emissions.

“Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of you,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We need to invest in [the Conservation Reserve] and let it do what it does best: preserve topsoil, sequester carbon, and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

To emphasize climate mitigation, the USDA created a “climate-smart practice incentive” in the Conservation Reserve to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Eligible practices include tree planting, sowing permanent grass cover, developing wildlife habitat, and restoring wetlands. The incentive would be paid annually based on benefits created on each farm.

“The climate-smart practice incentives act as an end run around the Peterson rental-rate reductions from the 2018 farm bill,” said a farm lobbyist, referring to Collin Peterson, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson wanted to get more land into the Conservation Reserve and, with new funding unavailable, paid for it by lowering the rents offered to landowners.

Enrollment in the reserve was been on the decline for 13 years, with a recent drop-off blamed on the noncompetitive rates offered by the USDA. In the past, the USDA matched land rental rates in each county. Now it offers as little as 80% of the local average.

Some 20.8 million acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve at the moment, well below the current limit of 25 million acres, which will rise to 27 million acres by 2023. Contracts expire this Sept. 30 on 3 million acres now in the reserve.

Vilsack described the adjustments to the Conservation Reserve during a meeting of the administration’s climate task force. In a summary of the meeting, the White House said the USDA would be “devoting $300 million or more annually to the effort.” Rental payments were estimated at $1.8 billion this fiscal year, or an average of $83 per acre.

The USDA said it would increase the county rental by 10% in a one-time inflation adjustment for the life of a Conservation Reserve contract. It would also set a minimum rental rate of $15 an acre for CRP Grasslands, boosting payments in 1,300 counties. And it would increase rates for three types of practice incentive payments. A handful of lawmakers said last fall that the Trump-era USDA was too stingy with the incentives. In addition, the rental rate would be raised for the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, a new and short-term version of the Conservation Reserve.

A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available to respond to questions about payment rates for the new climate-smart practices and about how Conservation Reserve payments would compare with local land rental rates under the new schedule of supports.

If 4 million acres are added to the reserve, it would offset the equivalent of 3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, reduce soil erosion by 33 million tones, and prevent the runoff of 90 million pounds of nitrogen.

The Conservation Reserve was created in 1985 during the agricultural recession to idle marginal land, protect water supplies, and provide wildlife habitat. Lawmakers have raised and lowered the enrollment ceiling in response to the current sentiment about putting land into production because of high food prices or sidelining it in the name of environmental protection. The 2018 farm law ordered the USDA to hold a “sign-up” each year, to give landowners the opportunity to idle fragile land for 10 years or longer in exchange for an annual payment.

The homepage for the Conservation Reserve is available here.

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