USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Monday announced that the USDA Conservation Reserve Program has signed on 1.7 million acres during the 45th CRP general sign-up.
The 1.7 million acres were selected from a pool of 1.9 million acres and 28,000 offers. Currently, there are more than 26.9 million acres enrolled on 700,000 contracts.
"American farmers and ranchers continue to recognize the importance of protecting our nation's most environmentally sensitive land by enrolling in CRP," Vilsack noted in a press statement.
Under CRP, farmers and ranchers plant grasses and trees in 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.
According to Farm Service Agency Administrator Juan Garcia, the selection of CRP acres is based on the Environmental Benefit Index, a system that takes into account five factors – wildlife enhancement, water quality, soil erosion, enduring benefits and air quality.
"We look at mixed species of grass that will enhance wildlife; that will enhance air quality. We also look at the erodability index of the soil, so if the soil is classified as highly erodible, naturally it would obtain more points," he explained.
In addition to water and soil benefits, USDA said CRP sequesters more carbon dioxide than any other conservation program in the country, and also reduces both fuel and fertilizer use. Yearly, CRP results in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.
The program provides about $2 billion annually to landowners.
In addition to the general enrollment for CRP, USDA has also set aside acreage for continuous enrollment to target habitat conservation on especially important lands.
This year, farmers and ranchers have already offered more than 370,000 acres under Continuous CRP signup, a figure that USDA says is "impressive" given that the lack of a Farm Bill, and an eventual extension in January meant that CRP enrollment only reopened in May.
FSA's Garcia points out that the shorter time frame for enrollment and the continuing lack of a farm bill also means that there's not a definite way forward for the program until the legislation is passed.
"At this particular time we have 27 million acres enrolled in CRP, so we feel that we'll have an opportunity later on as a farm bill is approved to have further sign-ups," Garcia said.
Contracts are typically honored for 10 to 15 years.