Land should be removed from Conservation Reserve Program
Congress should include legislative language as part of the 2012 farm bill that mandates the removal of millions of acres of “prime farmland” from the Conservation Reserve Program, according to a study conducted for the National Grain and Feed Foundation by Strategic Conservation Solutions LLC.
According to the study, “ReGaining Ground — A Conservation Reserve Program Right-Sized for the Times,” as recently as 2007 (the most recent data publicly available) up to 8.7 million acres that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers to be prime farmland were idled under 10- to 15-year Conservation Reserve Program contracts. The study recognized some prime farmland currently enrolled in the program as part of filter strips, grassed waterways and other highly-sensitive acres eligible for continuous signup in the program, that likely would remain idled. “But with CRP contracts that include more than 70 percent of the acreage enrolled — 21.2 million acres — set to expire over the next five years, there is an urgent need to manage the program so that the most productive land from the reserve is returned to production,” said the study.
The study suggests reducing the Conservation Reserve Program cap by phasing out existing enrollment and banning new enrollment of most prime farmland. It also includes several other legislative recommendations:
- Escalate the schedule for drawing down the program cap to coincide with the schedule for program contract expirations.
- Limit whole-field and whole-farm enrollments in the program by requiring such land to meet a more stringent environmental benefits index scoring threshold than partial-field enrollments.
- Mandate that the USDA offer program-contract holders a penalty-free early out as a means of reducing enrollments of prime farmland.
- Allocate sufficient funds to at least triple (to $75 million) the size of the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program, which is designed to encourage retired or retiring landowners to transition eligible program land for production to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers.
- Consider designating a specific percentage- or acreage-based figure within the program for future enrollment of the most environmentally sensitive land.
- Restrict the USDA’s discretion to exceed the current 25-percent acreage limit on program enrollments in individual counties because of the adverse economic impacts such enrollments have had on rural communities.