Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Dec. 7 that the USDA will offer farmers and ranchers more opportunities to participate in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The announcement includes new CRP practices to protect water quality and adds an additional 1.1 million acres targeted to benefit wildlife, pollinators, and wetlands.
“The Conservation Reserve Program is an extremely popular voluntary program that offers producers and landowners a wide variety of opportunities to prevent erosion, protect wildlife habitat and reduce nutrient runoff,” said Vilsack. “With the program close to the legal enrollment limit of 24 million acres, USDA has been working to use all of the tools at our disposal to maximize benefits by combining multiple soil, water and wildlife objectives in the areas where it is needed most.”
Vilsack unveiled a new conservation initiative known as Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR), which will add new tools to CRP that can help to improve water quality. CLEAR will assist landowners with the cost of building bioreactors and saturated buffers that filter nitrates and other nutrients from tile-drained cropland. Early estimates indicate that CLEAR could help to reduce nitrate runoff by as much as 40 percent over traditional conservation methods. CLEAR may cover up to 90 percent of the cost to install these new practices through incentives and cost-share. These new methods are especially important in areas where traditional buffers have not been enough to prevent nutrients from reaching bodies of water.
USDA will also add an additional 1.1 million acres to a number of key CRP practices that are critically important to wildlife and conservation. These include 700,000 acres for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) efforts, which restore high-priority wildlife habitat tailored to a specific state’s needs. In addition to SAFE, 300,000 acres will be added to target wetlands restoration that are nature’s water filters and 100,000 acres for pollinator habitat that support 30 percent of agricultural production.
The continued strong demand for CRP combined with the limited acreage available for enrollment and lower land rental rates, allows USDA to modify certain program components without affecting the integrity of the program. Signing incentives are being reduced by $25 per acre on certain practices for fiscal year 2018 enrollments (incentives are currently between $100 and $150 per acre) and a cap on the maximum soil rental rate is being instituted for Continuous CRP at $300 per acre. The savings from these changes are being reinvested back in CRP, including the additional acres for SAFE, pollinator habitat and wetlands restoration.
In an effort to improve wildlife habitat and the health of private forest lands, the FSA announced on Dec. 9 additional incentives available for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) participants to actively manage forest lands enrolled in the program.
“Many CRP forests were initially established to conserve soil and protect water quality, but there is also a critical need to restore wildlife habitat” said Brad Pfaff, FSA deputy administrator for farm programs. “Over the years as trees grow and the forest canopy closes, the quality of wildlife habitat for many species declines. These new incentives are intended to reverse that trend, while also maintaining healthy forests.”
The announcement was made at a CRP forest site near Jackson, Miss.
Under the provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill, $10 million is available nationwide to eligible CRP participants. Those selected will be encouraged to thin, prescribe burn or otherwise manage their forests in order to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. This will encourage the development of grasses, forbs and legumes, benefitting numerous species including pollinators and grassland-dependent birds such as the northern bobwhite.
“The program is a win-win for landowners and wildlife as it supports enhanced wildlife habitat on lands already removed from agricultural production, while promoting forest sustainability, soil conservation, and water quality protection,” said Pfaff.
Eligibility is limited to landowners and agricultural producers already enrolled in CRP with conservation covers primarily containing trees. Incentive payments, not to exceed 150 percent of the cost to implement a particular customary forestry activity as described, have been established. CRP participants meeting eligibility requirements and interested in making offers to participate should visit their local FSA county office.
To learn more about FSA’s conservation programs, visit www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation, or contact your local FSA office. To find your local FSA office, visit http://offices.usda.gov.