The National Grain and Feed Foundation released a study Tuesday recommending inclusion of legislative language in the 2012 farm bill that mandates removal of "prime farmland" from the Conservation Reserve Program.
The study noted that as recently as 2007 – the most recent data publicly available – up to 8.7 million acres that the USDA considers to be "prime farmland" were idled under 10- to 15-year CRP contracts. The study said that more than 70% of the acreage enrolled will expire over the next five years.
"There is an urgent need to manage the program so that the most productive land from the reserve is returned to production," the study said.
While the Senate version of the 2012 farm bill would reduce the 32-million-acre CRP cap to 25 million acres by the end of fiscal year 2017, the study called for a more rapid reduction that better coincides with the expiration dates of existing CRP contracts. Further, the study said that removing most "prime farmland" from the CRP would equate to a CRP cap of approximately 21 million acres.
While supporting CRP protection of environmentally sensitive lands, the study said current federal budget pressures and growing demand for agricultural products make removing acres from the CRP necessary.
Entitled "ReGaining Ground – A Conservation Reserve Program Right-Sized for the Times," the study contains an analysis of the quality of land enrolled in the 30 states with the highest CRP acreage. The study contains 10 legislative and eight administrative recommendations.
The study includes the following significant legislative recommendations:
Escalate the schedule for lowering the CRP cap to coincide with the schedule for CRP contract expirations. The study reported that "Current production needs are causing the conversion of fragile native grasslands to crop production, in part because higher-quality land in those same communities is tied up in the CRP. The transition to a smaller CRP will be easier in the early years of the next farm bill than it will be in later years."
Limit whole-field and whole-farm enrollments in the CRP by requiring such land to meet a more stringent environmental benefits index scoring threshold than partial-field enrollments. The study noted that during the early years of the 25-year-old CRP, whole farms and whole fields were enrolled for the express purpose of reducing agricultural production, which resulted in enrollment of high-quality farmland – some of which remains in the reserve.
Mandate that USDA offer CRP-contract holders a penalty-free early out as a means of reducing enrollments of prime farmland. The study also recommended that penalty-free early outs be mandated in counties that meet or exceed the current law's provision that CRP enrollment generally not exceed 25 percent of county acreage, as well as anytime when national enrollment levels preclude a general signup for the program.
Allocate sufficient funds to at least triple the size of the CRP Transition Incentives Program, which is designed to encourage retired or retiring landowners to transition eligible CRP land for production to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers. This program, authorized under the 2008 farm law and funded at $25 million for fiscal year 2012, was shut down mid-year after demand exceeded available funds. The study also recommended that this program be changed to allow retiring landowners to transition such CRP acreage to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers within three years of contract expiration, rather than the current one-year, while retaining the current two years of CRP incentive payments.
Consider designating a specific percentage or acreage-based figure within the CRP for future enrollment of the most environmentally sensitive land. As of April 2011, the study noted, the CRP included 5 million acres enrolled under continuous-signup procedures designed expressly for the most environmentally sensitive land. It is believed the current administration is reserving about 1.75 million acres for future continuous enrollments; but some conservationists contend that as many as 8 million acres within a future CRP cap should be reserved for such acres.
Restrict USDA's discretion to exceed the current 25-percent acreage limit on CRP enrollments in individual counties because of the adverse economic impacts such enrollments have had on rural communities. The study also recommended that USDA be required to reserve within the 25-percent county acreage limit at least a 5 percent allowance for acres to be enrolled under the Wetlands Reserve and continuous signup process.
The study contained the following key recommendations that it urged USDA to implement to better manage the CRP in the future:
Compile a county-based report of acreage enrolled in the CRP by land capability class and erodibility index, to be submitted to Congress within one year after the new farm bill is enacted and every three years thereafter to enable better-informed judgments on future management of the reserve.
Identify and post publicly on USDA's Farm Service Agency website, those counties that are at or near the 25 percent CRP enrollment cap.
Implement a percentage-based limit on rental rates paid for CRP land compared to average county rental rates so as not to outbid the market for productive farmland. The study found that in several states, CRP rental rate payments for acres enrolled under general signups exceed or nearly exceed state-average commercial farmland rental prices.
Review the EBI to discourage future enrollment of high-quality land in the CRP. The study noted that the EBI scoring system currently used by USDA awards positive points even for non-highly erodible land.
Place parameters on CRP program provisions, rental rates and incentive payments to better ensure that such elements do not result in enrollment of non-environmentally sensitive land under continuous-signup procedures. For instance, the study suggested generally restricting buffer, filter and riparian strips to no more than 30 to 50 feet in width, noting that at least one state has enrolled full fields as buffer strips at significantly higher payment rates.
"The confluence of many factors makes this an ideal time to regain ground by right-sizing the CRP and refocusing it on truly environmentally sensitive acres," the study concluded.