In a time of increasingly dwindling acres in the conservation reserve program, USDA Wednesday announced actions to expand the number of acres and practices in the program.
USDA is adding new CRP practices designed to protect water quality as part of a new program. In addition, another 1.1 million acres will be targeted to benefit wildlife, pollinators and wetlands.
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled a new conservation initiative known as Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers. The program will add new tools to CRP to improve water quality by assisting landowners with the cost of building bioreactors and saturated buffers that filter nitrates and other nutrients from tile-drained cropland.
According to a USDA news release, early estimates indicate CLEAR could help reduce nitrate runoff by as much as 40% above and beyond traditional conservation methods. CLEAR may cover up to 90% of the cost to install new practices through incentives and cost-share. The new methods are considered to be especially important in areas where traditional buffers have not been enough to prevent nutrients from reaching bodies of water.
USDA also will add 1.1 million acres to a number of key CRP practices.
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That will include 700,000 acres for state acres for wildlife enhancement, or SAFE, efforts that restore high-priority wildlife habitat tailored to a specific state's needs. In addition to SAFE, 300,000 acres will be added to target wetlands restoration and 100,000 acres for pollinator habitat that support 30% of agricultural production.
USDA said the continued "strong demand" for CRP combined with the limited acreage available for enrollment and lower land rental rates, allows the agency to modify certain program components without affecting the integrity of the program.
Signing incentives are expected to be reduced by $25 per acre on certain practices for fiscal year 2018 enrollments. According to USDA, incentives currently are between $100 and $150 per acre. There is a cap on the maximum soil rental rate for continuous CRP at $300 per acre. The savings from these changes are being reinvested in CRP, USDA said, including on additional acres for SAFE, pollinator habitat and wetlands restoration.
"The Conservation Reserve Program is an extremely popular voluntary program that offers producers and landowners a wide variety of opportunities to prevent erosion, protect wildlife habitat and reduce nutrient runoff," Vilsack said in a statement.
"With the program close to the legal enrollment limit of 24 million acres, USDA has been working to use all of the tools at our disposal to maximize benefits by combining multiple soil, water and wildlife objectives in the areas where it is needed most."
In May, USDA announced CRP contracts were issued on 411,000 acres, while landowners attempted to enroll 1.8 million acres in the program. USDA indicated 2016 was one of the most selective years in the program's history.
CRP acres stood at 37 million acres in 2007 at the start of the corn boom. The 2008 farm bill capped CRP acres at 32 million, and the 2014 farm bill capped it at 27.5 million acres in that year, 26 million in 2015, 25 million in 2016 and 24 million acres in 2017.
The CRP reductions come at a time when there's an increasing focus on improving water quality through reductions in nutrient runoff across the nation's largest basins.
Also in May, USDA also added more than 330,000 acres in continuous CRP acres. That puts the continuous program on pace to top last year's record of more than 860,000 acres added. The continuous CRP allows farmers to enroll wetlands, buffer strips and areas specifically pegged for wildlife habitat and is considered more targeted than the general enrollment.
Lower commodity prices and farm incomes have more producers looking to CRP enrollment as a way to improve incomes.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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