First authorized in the Food Security Act of 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program (“CRP”) is a voluntary program that allows agricultural producers to contract with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Farm Service Agency (“FSA”) to take highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land out of production in exchange for financial support. Under CRP, producers implement conservation practices on agricultural land, such as establishing certain plant species or developing wildlife habitat. In return FSA provides rental payments and cost-share assistance. The following is a general overview of CRP and how it functions.
Congress created CRP in 1985 in response to increased concern over high levels of soil erosion. The primary purpose of CRP is to conserve and improve “soil, water, and wildlife resources.” 16 U.S.C. § 3831(a). There are currently over 20 million acres enrolled in the program.
The basic structure of CRP is relatively straightforward. Farmers who are interested in participating in the program submit offers to FSA. If the offer is accepted, the farmer and FSA enter into a 10 to 15-year contract, with the farmer agreeing to adopt certain conservation practices in exchange for annual rental payments, and cost-share assistance from FSA. While the general structure of CRP is straightforward, there are complexities in how the program is carried out.
FSA enrolls most CRP acres during regular general sign-up periods announced by USDA. It is during these sign-ups that agricultural operators and landowners may submit offers to FSA. The offers should specify both the acreage that the farmer would like to enroll in the program, and the dollar amount they are will to accept as rental payments. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.31(a). Submitted offers are evaluated on a competitive basis so that the offers selected will provide the greatest environmental benefits relative to cost. In evaluating offers, FSA may consider a variety of factors, including: soil erosion, water quality for both surface and groundwater; wildlife benefits; soil productivity; cost of enrolling the acreage; and the likelihood that the soil will remain in non-agricultural use beyond the CRP contract period. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.31(b).
A general sign-up for CRP is offered at least once a year, but is not the only opportunity that agricultural producers have to enroll in CRP. Along with a general sign-up period, CRP also has a continuous sign-up option referred to as the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (“CCRP”) that is aimed at enrolling the most environmentally desirable land. Under CCRP, farmers are paid to install partial field conservation practices, often buffers or wildlife habitat. Unlike general sign-ups, there continuous sign-up is not competitive. Land submitted for CCRP will be enrolled automatically so long as it meets the eligibility criteria. Common practices adopted on acres enrolled in CCRP include: riparian buffers, wildlife habitat buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snowfences, salt-tolerant vegetation, and shallow water areas for wildlife. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.30.
There are several initiatives within CRP aimed at specific types of conservation:
Clear Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers Initiative
The Clear Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (“CLEAR”) Initiative was established under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (“2018 Farm Bill”) to help protect water quality through the reduction of sediment, nutrients, and harmful algal blooms. 16 U.S.C. § 3831(d)(3)(B). The program is currently in a “pilot” phase, and is only available for farmers and landowners with expiring CRP contracts in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay regions.
Soil Health and Income Protection Program
The Soil Health and Income Protection Program (“SHIPP”) was also created as a pilot program under the 2018 Farm Bill. Unlike other CRP contracts, SHIPP enrolls less-productive farmland through three to five-year contracts where farmers agree to plant low-cost vegetative cover in exchange for annual rental payments. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.70(b). Currently, land eligible for SHIPP is limited to areas selected by USDA within the prairie pothole region.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (“CREP”) partners with states to address geographically specific environmental concerns. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.90. Although CREP was originally created in 1997, it was not codified into statute until the 2018 Farm Bill. Under CREP, farmers are paid an annual rate of federal and state funds to exchange for removing environmentally sensitive land from production and adopting conservation practices. CREP enrollment operates on a continuous basis, meaning that land can automatically be enrolled in CREP provided it meets the eligibility requirements. However, only farmers in states that have a CREP agreement in place with FSA will be able to enroll acreage under the program.
The 2018 Farm Bill directs FSA to reserve at least 2 million CRP acres each year for grassland enrollments. 16 U.S.C. § 3831(d)(2)(A). Under grassland enrollment CRP contracts, farmers and ranchers use only certain grazing practices in exchange for annual and cost-share payments. Acres are enrolled as grassland enrollments through general sign-ups. The 2018 Farm Bill instructed FSA to prioritize enrollment of expiring CRP contracts, lands at risk of conversion or development, and grasslands of ecological significance. 16 U.S.C. § 3831(d)(2)(B).
Farmable Wetlands Program
The Farmable Wetlands Program (“FWP”) was originally authorized under the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. Eligible agricultural producers can enroll farmable wetlands or converted wetlands in exchange for financial incentives. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.11(b). Sign-up for FWP is held on continuous basis, and has an overall cap of 750,000 acres.
To successfully enroll in CRP, both the land and the person enrolling the land must be eligible.
For an agricultural producer to be eligible for CRP, they must be either the owner, operator, or tenant of eligible land. 7 C.F.R. § 1410.5(a). The producer must also have either owned or operated the eligible land for at least 12 months prior to the close of the applicable general sign-up period, or for at least 12 months prior to submitting an offer for a continuous sign-up period. If the producer is a tenant, then the participation of an eligible owner or operator will also be required. A producer may be eligible to enroll land that has been downed for less than 12 months if: the land was acquired due to the previous owner’s death; the land was acquired due to foreclosure in accordable with applicable state law; or if adequate assurances are made showing that the new owner did not acquire the land for the sole purpose of enrolling it in CRP.
For land to be eligible for CRP, it must be one or more of the following:
- Cropland that is physically and legally capable of being used to produce an agricultural commodity that has been annually planted in four of the six previous crop years;
- Pasture land that is adjacent to a water body, and is capable of reducing nutrient or sediment runoff, or providing some other water quality benefit;
- Ecologically significant grassland that contains forbs or shrublands, and is able to provide habitat for animal and plant populations; and
- Acreage that is enrolled in CRP, but is in the final year of its current contract.
7 C.F.R. § 1410.6.
CRP was most recently reauthorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. Along with reauthorizing the program, the 2018 Farm Bill also amended certain aspects of CRP. The 2018 Farm Bill increased the CRP acreage cap from 24 million acres to 27 million acres. Within that increase, FSA has been directed to enroll at least 8 million acres into CCRP. In addition to acreage increases, the 2018 Farm Bill established new pilot programs such as CLEAR 30 and SHIPP, and made changes to overall payment amounts.
More recently, USDA has announced upcoming changes intended to increase producer enrollment in CRP, and to quantify the climate benefits of the program. In a press release published in April, 2021, USDA announced that would be raising rental payment rates and expanding the number of incentivized environmental practices allowed under CRP in an effort to enroll up to 4 million new acres into the program. In another press release published in May, 2021, USDA also announced an initiative aimed at quantifying the climate benefits of CRP. According to the announcement, this is a multi-year project that will enable USDA to better target CRP contracts towards climate outcomes.
To read the section of the 2018 Farm Bill authorizing CRP, click here.
To read the regulations implementing CRP, click here.
For more information from FSA on CRP, click here.
For more National Agricultural Law Center information on conservation programs, click here.