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USDA Starts and Once Again Stops Entry to Long-Term Conservation Reserve

With the start of the new fiscal year, the USDA said it will accept most of the pending applications to enroll land in the Conservation Reserve, the first time in five months that land has been accepted under the so-called continuous enrollment option. At the same time, the Farm Service Agency said it suspended work on applications submitted after September 30 “until later in the 2018 fiscal year” so it does not exceed the 24 million-acre limit for the land-idling program.

At the moment, roughly 23.5 million acres are enrolled in the program, which pays owners an annual rent to set aside highly erodible or environmentally fragile land for 10 years or longer. Owners are required to plant vegetation to prevent erosion, protect water quality, or enhance wildlife habitat. Congress lowered the enrollment cap (from 32 million acres) in the 2014 farm bill as a money-saving step. The last time USDA held a “general sign-up,” open to everyone, was in late 2015. In the interim, land was accepted for high-priority projects, such as filter strips, under the continuous enrollment option. USDA shut off that avenue last May for most applicants to stay under the limit.

The USDA said it would accept most of the continuous enrollment applications made from May 4 to September 30, except for pollinator habitat applications. The pollinator initiative has met its acreage limit of 450,000 acres.

While it suspended work on most new applications, USDA said it would continue, as it has since May, to process offers to enroll land through the federal-state Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which offers bonus payments to landowners for projects that control farm runoff. Applications for grasslands preservation also will be accepted, said USDA.

Continuous enrollments were the source of 7.337 million acres of the 23.454 million acres in the reserve at latest count, said a USDA summary. The average payment for continuous enrollment contracts, which cover relatively small amounts of land, was $132 an acre, compared with nearly $52 an acre for the larger tracts that entered general sign-ups.

In the past few years, interest in the continuous enrollment option has surged, limiting the amount of land that USDA could accept in a general sign-up. Only 411,000 acres were accepted from the sign-up held in late 2015 and early 2016, the lowest acceptance rate, 22%, since the Conservation Reserve was created in 1985.

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