Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will accept 3.9 million acres offered under the 43rd Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up. The NRA has fought to ensure continued funding for CRP in the Farm Bill, as the program has been instrumental in the protection and improvement of critical game habitat across much of the country.
During the extended five-week sign-up, the USDA received nearly 48,000 offers on more than 4.5 million acres of land, demonstrating demand for CRP as our nation’s most successful voluntary program for conserving land and improving our soil, water, air and wildlife habitat resources.
Eighty-six percent of the land offered this year was accepted into the program. Accepted offers will become effective Oct. 1, 2012. Currently, there are more than 29.6 million acres enrolled in CRP on more than 736,000 contracts.
“For more than 25 years, lands in CRP have helped to support strong incomes for our farmers and ranchers and produce good middle-class jobs throughout the country related to outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing,” said Vilsack.
CRP is a voluntary program designed to help farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers protect their environmentally sensitive lands. Eligible landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of 10- to 15-year contracts.
USDA selects offers for enrollment based on an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) comprised of five environmental factors, plus cost. The five environmental factors are: (1) wildlife enhancement, (2) water quality, (3) soil erosion, (4) enduring benefits, and (5) air quality. The minimal acceptable EBI level for this sign-up was 209. The average rental rate for this sign-up is $51.24 per acre.
“On one hand, we are pleased to see such a substantial number of offers from this spring’s CRP general sign-up, considering external factors such as record high land values and commodity prices,” said Dave Nomsen, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Pheasants Forever.
“On the other hand, we are concerned about the significant decline of CRP acres across the Northern Plains states,” Nomsen added. “In total, the Northern Plains will lose in excess of 1 million acres of CRP through the 2012 re-enrollment process. The continued loss of CRP from this region will have far reaching wildlife and environmental ramifications. These acres represent America’s pheasant and duck factories, as well as the starting point for the Mississippi and Missouri River watersheds impacting water quality all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Pheasants Forever, along with its quail conservation division, Quail Forever, is the nation’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to upland habitat conservation.
While Pheasants Forever is concerned about the current status of CRP, Nomsen did address opportunities to work toward in the coming months.
“Recent USDA announcements for new CRP initiatives focusing on 750,000 acres of highly erodible, or HEL lands, and for 1 million acres of targeted CRP buffer practices may be very helpful to address resource concerns from areas experiencing loss of overall CRP,” Nomsen said. “In addition, Congress can address these habitat and natural resource concerns by quickly passing a 2012 Farm Bill with a strong overall conservation title, including CRP, and new policies like the Sodsaver provisions that will help protect valuable native prairie grasslands.”
Under CRP, farmers and ranchers plant grasses and trees in crop fields and along streams or rivers. The plantings prevent soil and nutrients from washing into waterways, reduce soil erosion that may otherwise contribute to poor air and water quality, and provide valuable habitat for wildlife. Plant cover established on the acreage accepted into the CRP will reduce nutrient and sediment runoff in our nation’s rivers and streams.
In 2011, as a result of CRP, nitrogen and phosphorous losses from farm fields were reduced by 623 million pounds and 124 million pounds, respectively. The CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and associated buffers and reduces soil erosion by more than 300 million tons per year. CRP also provides $1.8 billion annually to landowners—dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs. In addition, CRP is the largest private lands carbon sequestration program in the country. By placing vulnerable cropland into conservation, CRP sequesters carbon in plants and soil, and reduces both fuel and fertilizer usage. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.