Without a doubt, the Conservation Reserve Program is a favorite for sportsmen and farmers—here’s a look at the sweeping changes the 2018 Farm Bill made to this important program
The Conservation Reserve Program helps America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land. Thanks to the wildlife habitat benefits of the program, CRP is a household name with landowners and sportsmen in some parts of the country. (At least as much as any of the Farm Bill conservation program acronyms can be.)
Introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill, CRP once supported 37 million acres devoted to conserving soil, water, and wildlife habitat. But Congress reduced the size of the program to just 24 million acres in the 2014 Farm Bill, which forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn down thousands of CRP applications with millions of potential acres for conservation.
The hunting and fishing community pushed long and hard for a major increase to CRP acres in the new Farm Bill. Here’s what happened.
Some Good News, Some Bad News
Fortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill added 3 million acres back into the program, increasing the size to 27 million acres and helping meet landowner demand. But the additional cost of growing the program was paid for by placing a cap on rental rate payments. For general CRP, which typically includes larger tracts of acreage, lawmakers capped rental rates at 85 percent of the county average, while rental rates for continuous CRP on environmentally sensitive lands were capped at 90 percent.
This means CRP will be less likely to outbid beginning farmers who often lease their land from landowners. The downside being that the lower rental rates could lead to a decrease in landowner demand for the program. We remain optimistic that these changes will help keep CRP viable, and the TRCP is working to ensure the program continues to benefit water quality, wildlife, and landowners as the 2018 Farm Bill is implemented.
Other Wins for CRP
The new Farm Bill also calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to target the CRP toward a handful of priorities. This includes enrollment of 30 percent of all CRP acres within continuous CRP, which promotes practices that benefit water and wildlife, such as riparian buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, and more.
Additionally, the bill directs the Secretary to enroll up to 2 million acres into CRP grasslands, making the program a little more flexible for livestock and grazing operations. The 2018 bill also authorizes the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative and directs the Secretary to maintain at least 40 percent of continuous acres in CLEAR practices focused on improving water quality by reducing farm runoff.
For general CRP, the bill now mandates that the USDA hold annual sign-ups. Considering the last general sign-up was held more than three years ago and had the lowest acceptance rate—about 20 percent—in the program’s history, a mandated sign-up is a critical step toward meeting landowner demand. The legislation also directs the agency to meet acreage quotas based upon historical state enrollments. This mandate will lead to the annual addition of larger tracts of land that are a favorite of upland bird hunters.
Combined, we achieved some meaningful legislative changes in the 2018 Farm Bill that help connect landowners with CRP’s conservation tools and extend the program’s benefits to water and wildlife. But future Farm Bills could do even more for CRP—the demand is there.
For a look at the other improvements the 2018 Farm Bill made for conservation, click here.