USDA announces CRP changes to help improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and land transfers to beginning farmers
As USDA’s flagship voluntary conservation program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides incentives to producers who utilize conservation practices on environmentally- sensitive lands. For example, farmers are monetarily compensated for establishing long-term perennial cover, such as grasses and wildflowers or trees (known as “covers”) to control soil erosion, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat.
New additions to CRP: CLEAR and SAFE Acres
In December 2016, USDA former secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new conservation initiative known as Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) under CRP to combat water quality challenges in areas such as the Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basin. CLEAR will assist landowners with the cost of building denitrifying bioreactors on existing filter strips and saturated buffers to filter nitrates and other nutrients from tile-drained cropland.
Through CLEAR, FSA is targeting existing Filter Strip (CP21) and Riparian Buffer (CP22) practices that are already enrolled in CRP or are part of a new enrollment offer in areas with a need to reduce nitrate loading to surface water from subsurface drain tile outlets. Research at Iowa State University and elsewhere has shown the potential positive water quality impacts of bioreactorsand saturated buffers in Iowa and this new program will help landowners install these conservation practices on their properties.
USDA will also add an additional 1.1 million acres nationally to a number of key CRP practices that are critically important to wildlife, soil, and water conservation. These new authorizations include 700,000 acres for state priority wildlife projects under the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, 300,000 acres for wetland restoration, and 100,000 acres for pollinator habitat.
Iowa is slated to enroll 115,000 new acres in three SAFE programs in the state that target high-profile wildlife habitat needs. A new practice for 2017 aims to enroll up to 40,000 acres of land in high- quality habitat for Northern Bobwhite quail habitat in southern Iowa (Figure 1) according to a recent press release from Iowa NRCS. The new Iowa Quail Program is unique among other Continuous CRP practices because it emphasizes creating so-called early successional habitat through strategic plantings and frequent disturbances that create insect-rich habitats for bobwhite quail to raise their young. Landowners interested in restoring wild bobwhites, which have declined in abundance in Iowa for decades due to changes in availability of shrubby winter habitat and weedy fields and fencerows, should see positive responses of bobwhites to implantation of the new program. Iowa’s other two SAFE practices - Gaining Ground and Pheasant Recovery - plan to enroll an additional 75,000 acres in grassland and wetland habitat targeting ring- necked pheasants, meadowlarks, pollinators, and other grassland-dependent wildlife in the state.
Signing incentives are being reduced by $25 per acre on certain practices for fiscal year 2018 enrollments (incentives are currently between $100 and $150 per acre) and a cap on the maximum soil rental rate is being instituted for Continuous CRP at $300 per acre.
Early termination under TIP
Recently, USDA announced several changes in the CRP program in order to make it easier to transfer agricultural land to beginning farmers. The former Deputy Under Secretary of USDA Lanon Baccam announced in Warren County, Iowa that beginning Jan. 9, 2017 and under the Transition Incentives Program (TIP), USDA will offer an early termination opportunity for certain CRP contracts, making it easier to transfer property to socially disadvantaged or beginning farmers or military veterans, including family members.
Normally if a landowner terminates a CRP contract early, they are required to repay all previous payments plus interest. This "early out" option under TIP waives this repayment if the land is transferred to a beginning farmer or rancher through a sale or lease with an option to buy. With CRP enrollment close to the Congressionally-mandated cap of 24 million acres, the early termination will also allow USDA to enroll other land with higher conservation value elsewhere.
This change to the CRP program is just one of many that USDA has implemented based on recommendations from the Land Tenure Advisory Subcommittee formed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2015. As noted in AgDM Information File C2-78, Who Owns and Rents Iowa’s Farmland?, over half of Iowa’s farmland is rented from others and the overwhelming majority of land transferred was within a family rather than to new beginning farmers.
Currently, the Transition Incentives Program provides two additional years of payments for retired farmers and ranchers who transition expiring CRP acres to socially disadvantaged, military veteran, or beginning producers when the receiving party is not a family member. Those new renters or landowners have to use “sustainable grazing or farming methods” to bring land back into production. Those seeking to use this option must alert USDA by August 31, 2017. Land under this option could be eligible for an early termination of the contract up to one year before a contract is set to expire. TIP funding was increased by more than 30 percent in the 2014 Farm Bill, providing up to $33 million through 2018.
Options for landowners with expiring CRP acres
- Rent or Sell the expiring acres to a beginning farmer, military veteran or a member of a socially disadvantaged group using the early termination option under TIP or at the end of the contract period.
- Let contract expire. If contract holders opt to let the contract expire, they can plant, graze, or hay the ground after September 30 in the year the contract expires. USDA will also implement the 2014 Farm Bill’s requirement that producers enrolled through general sign-up for more than five years can exercise the option to opt-out of the program if certain other conditions are met.
- Enroll in Continuous CRP or CRP Grasslands. All or a portion of maturing CRP contracts may be eligible to be enrolled in either effort. The most recent CRP Grasslands ranking period closed December 16, 2016 and it is not clear when the next ranking period will be. The CRP Grasslands program allows producers to graze former CRP acres. The USDA will be enrolling lands into the Continuous CRP program, on a first-come, first- served basis of applications submitted by August 31, 2017. However, the 24-million acre nationwide enrollment cap set in the 2014 Farm Bill may result in some eligible acres not being accepted into the program. Any enrollments under the continuous signup would have a contract start of October 1, 2017. Open Continuous CRP practices in Iowa include a number of popular programs such as SAFE and pollinator habitat (CP-42).
- Conservation Easements or Working Lands Programs. These programs include the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) or state and private easement programs. Those planning to bring CRP ground back into production could also use the CRP Grasslands, Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).