Conservation Reserve Program: Status and Current Issues
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), enacted in 1985, provides payments to farmers to take highly erodible or environmentally sensitive cropland out of production for ten years or more to conserve soil and water resources. It is the federal government’s largest private land retirement program. The program is administered by the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with technical assistance provided by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The CRP has several subprograms, the best-known of which is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). In 2004, USDA announced two CRP initiatives: one to enroll 250,000 acres of bobwhite quail habitat and a second to enroll 250,000 acres of non-floodplain wetlands. An Emergency Forestry CRP was established in 2006 to address forestry damage by 2005 hurricanes.
The House- and Senate-passed farm bills (H.R. 2419 and S.Amdt. 3500, respectively) reauthorize CRP at the current acreage cap of 39.2 million acres. The Senate measure includes a provision for a pilot program for enrollment of wetland and buffer acreage into CRP. Both the House and Senate bills also direct the National Agricultural Statistical Service to conduct annual surveys of cash rental rates and to make these rates publicly available.
Current national enrollment stands at 36.8 million acres. Acting Secretary Conner has announced that there will be no general CRP sign-up in FY2008. Between 2007 and 2010, 27.8 million acres under CRP contracts will expire. Contracts for approximately 23 million (83%) of these acres have been renewed or extended. This report will be updated periodically.
House-and Senate-Passed Farm Bills. The House passed its version of the 2007 farm bill (H.R. 2419) on July 27, 2007. The Senate passed its version (S.Amdt. 3500) on December 14, 2007. The bills reauthorize the CRP at its current acreage cap of 39.2 million acres established in the 2002 farm bill (P. L. 107-171). A provision in the House-passed measure includes steps to facilitate the transition/sale of land subject to a CRP contract from a retired or retiring owner or operator to a beginning farmer or rancher, socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher, or limited resource farmer or rancher. The Senate bill directs the Secretary to give priority (where environmental benefits are equal) in contract bids to producers who reside in the county where the CRP acreage is located.
Another provision in both the House- and Senate-passed measures directs the National Agricultural Statistical Service to conduct an annual survey of per acre estimates of the average market dry land and irrigated land cash rental rates. Each county with 20,000 acres or more of cropland would be included in the survey, and the estimates would be publicly available on a USDA Website.
The Senate farm bill measure includes a provision for a pilot program to enroll wetland and buffer acreage in CRP. Eligible wetlands would include (1) those with a cropping history during at least three of the immediately preceding 10 crop years; (2) shallow water areas devoted to pond-raised aquaculture; and (3) agriculture drainage areas designed for nitrogen removal. The provision limits enrollment to no more than 100,000 acres per state and a total of one million nationally. Acreage would be enrolled under CRP’s continuous sign-up.
Expiring CRP Contracts and Reenrollment and Extension Policy. Approximately 28 million acres under CRP contract will expire between 2007 and 2010. Approximately 84% of this expiring acreage has been reenrolled or had contracts extended. Of the 15.7 million contract acres that were scheduled to expire by September 30, 2007, 13.6 million (86.6%) have been approved for extensions or new enrollment contracts. Contracts were extended or renewed based on the Environmental Benefit Index (EBI) score and the land’s location within national priority areas.1 FSA ranked individual contracts into one of five tiers based on the environmental benefits of the original EBI score. Eligible participants ranking in the first tier (81%-100%of the EBI) could reenroll their land in new 10-year contracts. Farmers and ranchers in this top tier with wetlands enrolled, were eligible for 15-year contracts. Only acreage under general sign-up contracts is eligible.
Contract extension ranges from two to five years. Eligible participants ranking in the second tier (61%-80% of the EBI) could extend their contracts for five years. Third tier participants (21%-40% of the EBI) could receive three-year extensions. Eligible participants in the bottom tier could extend their expiring contracts by two years.
Participants with contracts expiring between 2008 and 2010 were also notified by FSA that they could choose to reenroll or extend by June 30, 2006. Of the 12.1 million acres expiring 2008-2010, 9.6 million (79.3%) have been approved for reenrollment or extension as of September 2007. These amounts are subject to change. The currently high commodity prices may discourage some eligible producers from reenrolling or extending their contracts. Other producers may judge the high commodity prices as a temporary phenomenon and decide to reenroll or extend their contracts.
Contract Termination and Penalty Fees. With current interest in growing biomass for alternative fuels, CRP acreage is seen in some quarters as a potential resource for renewable fuel feed stocks. The Administration’s farm bill proposal suggested the possibility of an “early-out” for CRP contract holders who agreed to plant crops suitable for biofuel production. High grain prices potentially make contract terminations attractive to some producers. Under current law, however, a producer wishing to terminate a contract early faces a penalty fee plus repayment, with interest, of all the funds already paid to the producer. This includes any cost-share payments. The Senate-passed farm bill would permit terminations for disabled and retired producers.
In March 2007, Secretary Johanns announced that there would be no penalty-free release of acreage from the CRP in 2007. Acting Secretary Conner has reiterated this position. Penalties would apply to any contract holder who reenrolls or extends acreage and then decides to terminate the contract. An expiring contract that is extended and then later terminated would have penalties based on the original contract, not just the period since contract extension. Expiring acreage that is reenrolled is under a new contract.
Tax Status of CRP Payments. CRP rental payments are regarded by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as income from the business of farming. As such, they are subject to self-employment Social Security taxes. Producers, however, would like to treat CRP payments as rental income not subject to the self-employment tax of 15.3%. The IRS position was supported by the Sixth Circuit Court in March 2000 in Wuebker v. Commissioner, 205 F.3d897. In December 2006, the IRS issued Notice 2006-108 reinforcing its position that CRP payments are subject to self-employment taxes. In response, the Conservation Reserve Program Tax Fairness Act of 2007 (S. 1155/H.R. 2659) has been introduced in the 110th Congress. The bill would clarify that CRP payments should not be subject to self-employment taxes. Section 12202 of the Senate-passed farm bill (S.Amdt. 3500) would exempt CRP payments from self-employment taxes after December 31, 2007.
Effects of the CRP on Local Economies. Retiring land in rural, largely agricultural economies could result in fewer farmers and fewer farm supply businesses in those areas. A USDA report found that population trends were largely unaffected by high CRP enrollment. It also found that, although high CRP enrollment was associated with some job loss in rural areas between 1986 and 1992 — the years the CRP was first underway — this was generally not the case during the 1990s. However, the report noted that national trends could mask regional adjustments, and that “local economic adjustments might be sizeable.”2 Losing existing CRP acreage or halting new enrollments may also have effects on local economies where hunting and fishing are important activities.
CRP General Background
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is the federal government’s largest land retirement program for private land. It was first enacted by Congress in 1985 to help control soil erosion, stabilize land prices and control excessive agricultural production. Since then, program purposes have been expanded to include environmental goals. The program is administered by USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA), with technical assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and funding from USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). The FSA makes annual rental payments based on the agriculture rental value of the land, and provides cost-share assistance for up to 50% of the participant’s costs in establishing various approved conservation practices (e.g., planting a cover crop on the land to reduce erosion). Participants enroll in CRP contracts for 10 to 15 years.
Participants bid to retire land from production for 10-15 years. Contracts are awarded by FSA based on their assessment of the land’s environmental value using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). If the land is accepted, the landowner may enroll the land, receive annual rental payments for it, and maintain the land under an approved conservation plan. According to FSA data, the CRP had 36.8 million acres enrolled as of September 2007, including the various subprograms (e.g., Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Farmable Wetlands).3 Up to 25% of a county’s cropland may be enrolled in the CRP. More than 80 counties have reached this limit and approximately 130 have at least 22.5% enrolled, although this can include counties with very small total acreage of cropland.
After a CRP contract expires, federal payments cease. If the land in question is “highly erodible” (about 75% of the land enrolled in the CRP meets this definition) and participants decide to return the land to production, they must manage this land under an approved conservation system if they wish to be eligible for some federal farm programs (including commodity payments).
Enrolling in CRP
There are four types of sign-ups for enrolling land in the CRP: general, continuous, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP). As of September 2007, there were 788,118 CRP contracts nationally on 443,615 farms (approximately 21% of all farms).
General Sign-up. General sign-ups are specified enrollment periods during which landowners compete nationally to enroll land in the CRP. Nearly 90% of CRP acreage (33.4 million of 36.8 million) is enrolled through general sign-up. Applicants must meet certain eligibility criteria, evaluate their land according to FSA’s Environmental Benefits Index, and submit bids to FSA for enrollment. FSA accepts applications that show the highest environmental benefits. These sign-ups are always competitive. For the CRP’s most recent general sign-up (Number 33), which ran from March 27 to April 28, 2006, USDA selected one million acres of the 1.4 million acres offered. The most recently enrolled acreage includes about 673,000 acres of land located within conservation priority areas, about 629,000 acres with an erodibility index of eight or greater (highly erodible), and about 265,000 acres to be restored to rare and declining habitats.
Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). As the CRP has been expanded to include broader environmental goals, FSA has adjusted the categories and points awarded under the EBI. For example, FSA announced in June 2003 that, for the first time, it may award points to projects which have the potential to sequester carbon (reducing greenhouse gas emissions). Other factors include wildlife habitat benefits from planted cover crops, water quality benefits from reduced erosion, and whether benefits will endure beyond the contract period. Offers that included a willingness to accept less than the maximum rental rate for acreage (thereby reducing the cost to the government), as well as offers to reenroll land, may have received additional points. FSA ranks all applications nationally, and then sets an EBI score cutoff above which applications will be accepted.
Continuous Sign-up (includes Bobwhite Quail and Non-Floodplain Wetlands). Environmentally desirable land devoted to specific conservation practices with high environmental benefits may be enrolled in the CRP at any time for 10-15 years under continuous sign-up.4 Offers are automatically accepted (provided the land and producer meet certain eligibility requirements) and are not subject to competitive bidding. Contracts usually include additional incentive payments. The 2002 farm bill reserved four million acres (of the 39.2 million enrollment limit authorized) for land to be enrolled under continuous sign-up or CREP sign-up (see below). Within the continuous sign-up program there are some options tailored to certain conservation needs, such as restoring floodplain wetlands and native hardwood trees in wetlands. On August 4, 2004, the Administration announced two more initiatives: a 250,000-acre initiative to restore bobwhite quail habitats in the Midwest and the Southeast, and a 250,000-acre initiative to restore wetlands located outside floodplains (including Great Plains playa lakes). There are currently 2.9 million acres enrolled under continuous sign-ups (excluding CREP acreage).
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). This is a joint federal-state continuous sign-up program available in parts of 28 states. CREP targets geographic areas with agriculture-related environmental problems, such as Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Florida’s Everglades. Some states (including New York and Ohio) have multiple CREPs, each targeting a different area of the state. USDA provides 80% of the funding, and a non-federal entity (typically the state) contributes the remainder. States may automatically enroll up to 100,000 acres. Unlike the general sign-up, CREP both encourages landscape-scale conservation efforts and offers the flexibility to address locally identified needs. Generally, CREP rental payments are higher to attract participation. Landowners may bid to enroll in CREP at any time. As of September 2007, 979,114 acres were enrolled in CREP.
Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP). As authorized under the 2002 farm bill, this allows farmable wetlands — those wetlands that have been partially drained, or are naturally dry enough to allow crop production in some years, but otherwise meet the definition of a wetland — to be enrolled in the CRP on a continuous basis. Up to 100,000 acres may be enrolled from any state (this may be increased to 150,000 acres after three years). The farm bill reserved one million acres for farmable wetlands enrollment. In September 2007, there were 170,277 acres enrolled.
Acreage enrolled in CREP, continuous enrollment, or the farmable wetlands programs is generally eligible for higher payments than acres enrolled under general sign-ups because of their higher environmental benefits, location and prevailing rental rates, and additional financial incentives for participation. However, such contracts involve much smaller acreage on average. CREP payments average $122 per acre and $118 for the FWP, versus an average per acre payment of approximately $44 for the general sign-up acreage.5
For FY2008, CRP payments nationally will total approximately $1.8 billion, according to USDA. The Congressional Budget Office estimated CRP contract obligations would cost $1.92 billion in FY2007 and $2.4 billion through 2017.6 NRCS estimated that, prior to 2003, monetized CRP benefits (such as increased wildlife habitat and small game hunting) totaled about $1.4 billion per year. This figure does not include non-monetized benefits such as improved groundwater quality and wetland restoration.
Rental Rates for CRP Acreage. The average rental rate for all CRP land was $49.54 per acre as of September 2007. Rental rates range from an average of approximately $44 for general sign-up acreage to $122 for CREP acreage. CRP rental rates are based on the three-year average of local dry-land cash rental rates. Certain monetary incentives, such as an incentive to perform particular maintenance obligations, may also apply. Producers can offer land at that market rate or may offer a lower rental rate to increase the likelihood that their offer will be accepted. CRP cost-sharing assistance is available to eligible participants for up to 50% of the eligible costs of establishing the approved practice.
The House- and Senate-passed farm bills direct the Secretary to conduct an annual survey of per-acre estimates of the average market dry land and irrigated land cash rental rates and to post these rates on a publicly accessible USDA Website.
CRP Environmental Results. FSA estimates that, compared with 1982 erosion rates, the CRP has reduced erosion by more than 454 million tons per year on the 36.7 million acres enrolled in the program. Other conservation benefits NRCS has documented on these lands include the sequestration of more than 48 million metric tons of carbon annually; more than 3.2 million acres of wildlife habitat established; and a reduction in the application of nitrogen (by 681,000 tons) and phosphorus (by 104,000 tons). Also, participants have planted about 2.7 million acres to trees, making it the largest federal tree-planting program in history.7 Through April 2006, CRP had restored two million acres of wetlands and 2.5 million acres of buffers.
- National Priority Areas named in CRP authorizing legislation are the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Great Lakes Region. USDA established two other national priority areas: Prairie Pothole Region in the Northern Great Plains, and Longleaf Pine Region in the southeast.
- US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service Report to Congress. The Conservation Reserve Program: Economic Implications for Rural America. September 2004.
- States with the most enrolled acres are Texas (4.1 million acres), Montana (3.5 million acres), North Dakota (3.4 million acres), Kansas (3.3 million acres), and Colorado (2.5 million acres).
- Specific conservation practices include filter strips, riparian buffers, grass waterways, shelterbelts, field windbreaks, living snow fences, salt-tolerant vegetation, shallow water areas for wildlife, wetland restoration, and wellhead protection areas.
- Approximates FY2008 payments, before adjustments for haying/grazing, non-compliance, terminations, part-year contracts, and contracts not yet recorded.
- Congressional Budget Office, March 2007 Baseline.
- CRP Benefit-Cost Assessment, February 2003, and FY2005 CRP annual summary.
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