The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
CRP is a voluntary long-term cropland retirement program. It provides participants (farm owners, operators or tenants) with an annual per-acre rent plus half the cost of establishing a permanent cover (usually grass or trees). In exchange, the participant retires highly erodible or environmentally sensitive cropland from production for 10 to 15 years. See USDA FSA CRP page for current updates
Soil Bank Act (1956)
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is rooted in the Soil Bank Act of 1956, at which time the nation sought to prevent repeating the mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. Recognizing that eroding cropland had to be protected, Congress authorized the USDA to enter into long-term conservation agreements with producers and landowners. The USDA shared the cost of converting excess cropland from production to protective vegetative cover.
The Soil Bank Act was followed by two similar long-term contract programs: the Cropland Conservation Program (1962) and the Cropland Adjustment Program (1965).
In the 1970s, prices of farm commodities rose significantly due to diminished stocks and increased export demand. U.S. producers responded by planting on marginal cropland and range and pasture lands. In the 1980s, the U.S. dollar depressed prices, causing farm income to fall to its lowest level since the 1930s.
Also, public concern increased over the damage caused by agricultural erosion and water runoff carrying sediments, nutrients, and pesticides into water bodies. Studies indicated that the nation's cropland was eroding and suffering soil losses at rates exceeding 3 billion tons per year, severely affecting wildlife habitat.
In 1985, Congress passed the Food Security Act to address these environmental issues. Under this act, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was founded.
The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990
This 1990 act extended the CRP enrollment period through 1995 and broadened the program's focus to include improving water quality and other environmental goals. By 1995, a total of 38 million acres were enrolled in the CRP.
In 1994, The USDA announced a new emphasis on environmental improvement. CRP participants would be allowed to release all or part of the eligible contract before the contract expiration date without a penalty if certain provisions were met. This allowed the replacement of early released contract acreage with land yielding greater environmental benefits.
The 1996 Act
In 1996, President Clinton signed the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act, which further amended the 1985 Act and confirmed the CRP's new focus. The new law continued the CRP at a maximum enrollment of 36.4 million acres at any one time through 2002, and authorized producers to withdraw certain CRP lands at any time, subject to 60-day notice to USDA.
Reauthorized in 2002 Farm Bill
Enrollment raised to overall acreage cap of 39.2 million acres.
The New CRP
On May 13, 2002, the latest version of the CRP was launched, beginning a renewed effort to achieve full potential of conservation partnerships. The most environmentally sensitive lands which yield the greatest environmental benefits will be accepted into the program.
Improved Environmental Benefits Index (EBI)
An expanded 39.2 million-acre cap on enrollments has been authorized under this version of the Farm Bill. To make the most of the program's potential with this limitation, an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) will continue to be used. This EBI will be used to select areas offering the greatest environmental benefits.
Erosion control remains a top priority, but now water quality and wildlife habitat improvement are also emphasized. The new EBI consists of the following factors:
- wildlife habitat benefits
- water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff, and leaching
- on-farm benefits of reduced erosion
- long-term retention benefits
- air-quality benefits from reduced wind erosion
- the land's location in a Conservation Priority Area, if applicable
- cost of enrollment per acre
Conservation Priority Areas (CPAs) are regions targeted for CRP enrollment. Farm Service Agency State Committees may designate up to 10% of a State's remaining cropland as a State Conservation Priority Area.
For certain high priority conservation practices that yield highly desirable environmental benefits, producers may sign up at any time, without waiting for the next announced sign-up period. Such practices include:
- Filter Strips: areas of grass, legumes, and other vegetation that filter runoff and waste water by trapping sediment, pesticides, organic matter, and other pollutants. These are planted on cropland at the lower edge of a field or adjacent to water bodies.
- Riparian Buffers: areas of trees and/or shrubs next to ponds, lakes, and streams that filter out pollutants from runoff. Riparian buffers also provide shade, food, and shelter for fish and other wildlife.
- Shelter Belts and Field Windbreaks: belts of trees or shrubs planted in single or multiple rows. These belts reduce wind erosion, improve air quality, protect growing plants, and provide food, shelter, and breeding habitat for wildlife.
- Grass Waterways: natural or constructed channels that are planted with suitable vegetation to protect soil from erosion. These can help heal gullies and washouts, and greatly reduce loss of topsoil and sedimentation of water bodies.
- Shallow Water Areas for Wildlife: Small areas where cover and a water source is provided for wildlife. Water is impounded using embankments, berms, or other methods, and surrounded by a small area planted with permanent cover.
- Salt-Tolerant Vegetation: vegetation planted to reclaim areas where saline water is seeping to the surface.
- Certain EPA-Designated Wellhead Protection Areas: areas that help assure the safety of municipal water supplies drawn from wells. A State agency with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved Wellhead Protection Program will designate the area. Vegetation planted around the wellhead will help protect the water supply from contamination.
The CRP yields benefits beyond environmental improvement. By protecting highly erodible and environmentally sensitive farm land, the program produces a wide range of economic benefits.
USDA economists have estimated economic benefit ranges for the program (estimates from the 1996 Farm Bill):
- $2.1 to $6.3 billion increases in net farm volume
- $3.3 billion value of future timber resources
- $0.6 to $1.7 billion in preservation of soil productivity
- $1.3 to $4.2 billion in improved surface water quality
- $0.3 to $0.9 billion in reduced damage from wind blown dust
- $1.9 to $3.1 billion in enhanced small game hunting
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated wildlife benefits of:
- $1.4 billion for waterfowl hunting
- $4.1 billion for nonconsumptive wildlife benefits (photography and bird and animal watching)
Water Quality Benefits
The conversion of highly erodible and environmentally sensitive farm land to permanent vegetative cover has led to significant improvements in water quality across the country.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), each acre under a CRP contract reduces erosion by an average of 19 tons of top soil per year. This improves water quality in water bodies by reducing sediment and reducing the amount of nutrients and pesticides swept into lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams.
Also, producers who enroll acreage in CRP significantly reduce their application of pesticides and fertilizers on those acres, largely eliminating these acres as a source of runoff containing excess quantities of these materials.
Other benefits include:
- lower water treatment costs
- lower sedimentation removal costs
- reduced flood damage
- improved aquatic and riparian habitats
- larger and more diverse populations of aquatic wildlife
- increased water-based recreational values
- reduced maintenance costs for water navigation systems
- reduced eutrophication and stagnation, resulting from lower levels of nutrients and pesticides.
The benefits yielded to wildlife by Conservation Reserve lands is significant. The combined size of new wildlife habitats established by the CRP is twice as large as the National Wildlife Refuge System and all State-administered wildlife areas in the contiguous 48 States combined. This has ranked the CRP as one of America's most successful wildlife conservation efforts.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented the following successes, which are, at least in part, attributable to the CRP.
- an increase in wild duck nesting populations of over 3 million in the Dakotas and Montana, benefiting hunters throughout 12 states along the Central Flyway
- increases in grasshopper sparrow, lark, bunting, and eastern meadowlark populations
- the doubling of ring-necked pheasant populations in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ohio; and a tripling of the pheasant harvest in Montana
- the reappearance of long-absent prairie chickens in Texas
- new CRP habitats in the Northern Great Plains in use by 75 species of birds
- notable increases in populations of big game such as elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and pronghorn
These results are noteworthy. Since its official inception on 1986, the CRP has resulted in a number of dramatic improvements in the health and size of wildlife populations.
Contact the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) for more information about the Conservation Reserve Program.