What is the status of CRP?

Minnesota farmers continue to prioritize land conservation

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. – In an effort to improve water quality, reduce soil erosion and mend habitats, the Conservation Reserve Program was established by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
    To date, it remains one of the largest conservation programs across the nation, according to the United States Department of Agriculture; and that trend is no different in Minnesota.
    “Minnesota has always been a leader in conservation,” Whitney Place said. “The CRP program is one of those tools to get conservation on the land.”
    Place is the state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Minnesota.
    The signup for the General CRP program closed in March, and with that, of the 2 million acres enrolled across the nation, nearly 31,000 acres are represented in Minnesota. That value contributes to the state’s nearly 1 million acres of CRP land from 55,000 contracts.
    “Of course, there are certain areas of the state where CRP makes sense,” Place said. “CRP is a program that can fit so many ecosystems and have benefits. It’s a competitive program, and we’re happy a lot of producers take it as an opportunity.”
    Over the last decade, a slight decrease in land enrolled has been noted; in 2013, the state recorded 1.3 million acres.
    This year, Minnesota has 104,000 acres set to expire from the federal conservation program.
    “The goal is to maintain those acres somewhere in new or current enrollment in light of the shifting agriculture sector with high commodity prices, weather and the situation in Ukraine,” Place said.
    Not only have acres enrolled shifted but those acres have also drifted into which program the acres are a part of. Aside from the General CRP program, Grassland CRP and Continuous CRP, which includes the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and Farmable Wetlands Program among others, have all gained competitive participation.
    The state has seen greater interest in the continuous enrollment program, Place said.
    “When there’s ongoing signup, it allows producers to target certain areas of land that will benefit and then they can secure a contract,” she said. “With waves of those signups comes additional acres every year.”
    Last year, the Biden administration reviewed the national conservation program and made adjustments to further incentivize landowners to enroll their property.
“There were changes to the CRP program where it might not have worked in the past, but it could have significantly changed for farmers now,” Place said. “We encourage landowners to think about their land, run numbers and decide if contracting some will work.”
    To create a larger incentive for enrolling, the government authorized higher payment rates for land enrolled in CRP with a one-time 10% inflationary adjustment under General CRP. It also worked with local FSA offices to improve rental rates. In Grassland CRP, a minimum rental rate of $15 was established, said to benefit 1,347 counties across the nation.
    “This happened for a couple reasons,” Place said. “One, to keep up with inflation; and two, as we’re facing high commodity prices, this program needs to make sure rental rates are competitive. This is a signature change moving forward.”
    Most notably, the administration addressed the conservation program’s potential for climate mitigation.  
    In the Continuous CRP program, several adjustments were put in place that increase the program’s payments to encourage enrollment.
    “This is land a lot of people don’t want to farm anyways,” Place said. “As we think about climate, environmental protection and resiliency, people want to protect these acres. We’ve seen that gradual shift over the last 10 years.”
    Last fall, USDA launched the first phase of the soil carbon monitoring efforts through CRP. This initiative is focused on collecting soil samples from perennial grasses, trees and wetlands enrolled in the conservation program to better quantify the climate benefits of the program.
    “Where the conversation is going, both in the Biden administration and agriculture and food companies, is climate,” Place said. “CRP provides carbon sequestration, and farmers can tap into that private carbon market. These conversations are happening right now.”
    One initiative that occurred out of necessity was the authorization of emergency haying and grazing conservation land in wake of the widespread drought.
However, that program was limited and poorly timed for the dairy industry as access to lands was granted in late summer when grasses were past maturity. There was also a fee to harvest the land.
    “The drought was key to starting a conversation about grazing CRP and managing it through haying,” Place said. “From my perspective, we have to manage it in a way that gives livestock producers access to forage. That’s another win-win for CRP that the program should be seeking.”
    Place expects conversations about more inclusive possibilities of CRP to happen when drafting the next farm bill.
     “The program was first passed in 1985, and it has remained relatively the same,” she said. “It’s really exciting that it’s been going on that long and it continues to provide benefits, but there is always room for growth. We have to continue working to make farming operations successful with environmental benefits as well.”

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