A look at our nation's most popular conservation program
By Tim Putnam
Providing annual payments to Washington farmers and landowners of more than $82 million dollars, the Conservation Reserve Program’s (CRP) impact goes beyond our state’s economy and includes wildlife habitat and the stability of our marginal soils.
Enrollment in CRP is voluntary. The 2008 Farm Bill capped the amount of land allowed in CRP at 32 million acres. Current enrollment nationally is at 29,564,781 acres (as of October 2011).
During the competitive general sign-up, land is scored on a variety of factors known as the Environmental Benefits Index. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) compares these scores nationally to fill the pool of land available under the program.
“Producers receive more points if they choose to plant native grasses with a shrub or legume component that is necessary for good wildlife habitat,” said Geremy Nelson, FSA county executive director for both Garfield and Asotin counties. “This practice ensures that sensitive ground is being maintained in a conservation conscience practice while providing producers annual rental payments for enrolling the land.”
In addition to the general sign-up, FSA also has a continuous sign-up that allow producers whose lands meet specific high priority conservation practices—such as filter strips, riparian buffers and wetlands—to enroll at any time during the year without competition.
“I consider CRP, in a dryland area, my only viable alternative crop,” said Adams County wheat farmer Steve Taylor, who has about 13 to 14 percent of his land in CRP. “It’s a way for me to economically go into conservation.” Often referred to as a program that pays farmers to idle marginal land for conservation, CRP also helps stabilize farmers’ bottom line. An application of supply and demand, CRP raises commodity prices by reducing crops taken to market.
“My sense is it is partly about conservation and partly about keeping farmers’ incomes up,” said former USDA Economist Michael Roberts. Roberts is also a North Carolina State University associate professor and an affiliate at the Center for Environmental and Resource Economic Policy. “I think it’s sincerely about both. It’s one issue where environmentalists and farmers’ interests are on the same page.
“Probably the best benefit of the program for farmers is the higher commodity price,” continued Roberts. “The gains to farmers far outweigh the rental payments they receive from the government, because removing land from production helps drive up commodity prices, which increases profits even for farmers not participating in CRP.”
An alternative for poor soils
“The original intent of CRP was to take highly erodible ground out of production and provide wildlife habitat and soil control,” said Lincoln County farmer Chris Laney, who has about 12 percent of his farm in CRP, “While still compensating the owner who purchased the land for production.”
One method of accomplishing this intent was planting grasses on lower quality soils. Initially, CRP land was planted in a grass seed native to a larger region. For example, areas in Douglas County were seeded in grasses native to the Eastern Washington region, not so much the county.
“The original program—a monotype planting of nonnative species—was not very beneficial to the wildlife,” said Dennis Beich, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 2 regional director. “Over the course of the land being in CRP for 10 to 20 years, though, the native plants have re-established themselves.”
Nelson said CRP stands are now planted with several native grasses, sage brush and other shrubs beneficial to the wildlife that thrive in these stands.
“In this county, we have close to 25 percent of the eligible cropland enrolled,” said Dick Erickson, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) resource conservationist in Adams County. “You’ve got to figure that’s holding a lot of dust down.” Erickson stated the NRCS’s role in the CRP process includes providing technical recommendations on seedbed preparation and suitable seed mixes to plant depending on rainfall and soil types.
“CRP gives producers an alternative for poor soils,” said David Lundgren, Lincoln County Conservation District’s district manager. “If you take light soils that are hard areas to protect and put them in grass, that’s where CRP makes sense for us.”
With about 4 percent of his land in CRP, Lincoln County farmer John Rustemeyer looks at CRP as solution to manage critical areas on his farm. “I think we’re using the program to the benefit that fits our needs and helps with certain areas as well on the ground.”
Laney stated that another benefit to CRP is risk management. By putting qualified land into CRP, he has income security from the guaranteed annual rental. One benefit of this was the ability to use this guaranteed income from some steep land in CRP to purchase his neighbor’s land that was more efficient for him to farm.
Increasing wildlife habitat
“In the past ten to fifteen years,” said USDA Farm Service Agency Program Chief Rod Hamilton, “CRP has seen a significant shift in focus from erosion control to environmental benefits such as wildlife habitat.”
“The program has been remarkably successful in wildlife habitat,” said Laney. “When the 8,000 acres around here were in CRP, the bird and deer populations just exploded.”
A regional CRP wildlife success story is the threatened populations of Sage Grouse and Sharp-Tail Grouse in Douglas County, both of which are state, but not federally, protected. “CRP may be one of the reasons the Sage Grouse is not listed as an Endangered Species federally,” said Beich.
Region 2 is comprised of Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties. About 80 percent of the CRP land in Region 2 is in Douglas County. It’s this CRP land that Beich directly attributes to the increase of the Sage Grouse.
Along with the Sage Grouse, Beich has seen an increase in population with the Sharp-Tail Grouse and numerous other species that live in Douglas County’s shrub steppe environment.
“There are hundreds of obligate species that need the sage brush community to survive,” said Beich. “In this region, we have lost 70 percent of the shrub steppe landscape to agriculture, development and—more recently— wind power.”
He compares this loss of habitat to that of the old growth forests.
“We are approaching the same issues that hit old growth forests when it got down to the last 10 percent remaining,” cautioned Beich. “Once you get that close, species begin disappearing off the face of the earth.”
Targeting specific conservation issues
CRP subprograms designed to solve specific conservation issues include Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal/state partnership focusing on specific environmental objectives through targeted enrollments; Farmable Wetland Program, a program for enrolling small, nonflood-plain wetlands, and the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program which has the specific purpose of addressing state and regional highpriority wildlife objectives.
As of October of last year, Washington State has 37,496 acres in the SAFE program.
Beich notes that when the 2008 Farm Bill reduced the land allowed in CRP by 4 million acres, the reductions in Douglas County could have threatened the population of species if not for SAFE. Lands under SAFE do not count against CRP’s 25 percent cap per county. With SAFE, 35 percent of Douglas County’s land—most of it former wheat land—is enrolled in CRP.
“I look at SAFE as the new and improved CRP,” said Beich. “Planners look at native soil to see what would be best planted there, sort of a mini-farm plan for that piece of ground.”
Washington State also has a CREP targeting salmon habitat. As part of this initiative, the FSA participated in planning about 12,000 acres of forested riparian buffer along salmon streams.
“These plantings could be no wider than 180 feet,” said Hamilton, “So you can imagine how much stream bank that covered.”
The local economic toll
“From a conservation standpoint, it works really well, there is no question,” said Rustemeyer, who farms with his father Andy. “But from an agronomics standpoint, the local economies get hit really hard.”
Laney notes that when CRP broadened its criteria to allow full farms under the program, the effect devastated his area. Having these full farms out of production hit local fuel and chemical sales hard, as well as intake at the local grain elevator.
“It was hard on the local economy,” said Rustemeyer about whole farms going into CRP. “The schools got hurt because there were fewer people out here farming. These towns all used to have a grange that sold fertilizer and fuel—they’re gone.”
Rustemeyer believes the sentiment amongst most farmers is that they would like to see the good land still farmed. He added that good ground taken out of production means someone is not farming.
“And there is clearly some steep ground, some erodible ground where CRP has worked very well,” said Rustemeyer about the role CRP should play on a farm. “The initial premise behind the original idea was a good one and remains a good one.”
Dealing with weeds
As part of the conservation plan to put land into CRP, the NRCS requires noxious weeds be controlled by the landowner. Compliance is monitored by FSA spot checks of 10 percent of the land in CRP each year and by neighbors who don’t want noxious weeds to spread.
“Weeds are always a big issue. Controlling weeds in CRP when you initially seed the grass is a huge undertaking,” said Rustemeyer. “The chemicals you would use to control the weeds, if you have legumes in your seed mix, will kill (the legumes) as well. You mow it and keep control, and eventually the grass will take control.”
“CRP is notoriously known for noxious weeds,” said Kevin Hupp, weed coordinator for the Lincoln County Noxious Weed Control Board. “During the first year of CRP planting, we see everything. As the grass and forbs take hold, they overtake most of the usual nasties.” Hupp says that when forbs were added to planting, the weed problem got worse. This results from taking longer for the planting to overtake the weeds and the reduced ability to use herbicides. Though he likes the grass, forbs and shrub planting mixture, Hupp recommends not planting it all at once. Rather, farmers should be allowed to plant the grass first in order to overtake the weeds and add the other plantings in one or two years. “At least in our county, these guys are good guys,” said Hupp. In the past 14 years, Hupp remembers only two occasions where he had to go to the FSA to discuss a farmer being nonresponsive about weed issues. “Most know where the weeds are and take care of them.”
Nelson stated that where noxious weeds are an issue, the FSA shares the cost of approved maintenance practices to resolve the problem. Lands in CRP also provide—at the landowner’s discretion—recreational areas for hiking, hunting and fishing.
“CRP does not require public access,” said Beich. “If a landowner wishes to allow hunting, they can. There is a fair amount of both hunting and wildlife watching occurring on CRP land.”
Of Washington State’s 1,461,969 acres enrolled in CRP as of October of 2011, more than 275,000 acres are scheduled to expire this year. Additionally, another 254,229 acres are scheduled to expire in 2013. Based on October 2011 enrollment, these expirations represent 35 percent of contracts and 36 percent of the acreage under CRP. With the uncertainty of a spring sign-up and CRP rental rates in our state averaging $56.30/acre, these expirations offer a potential to impact the economy, as well as the environment they were set aside to protect.
“The biggest mystery of the upcoming farm bill is, will there be a sign-up?” said Britt Dudek, district manager at the Foster Creek Conservation District, “Because sometimes there isn’t a sign-up.”
Dudek said the political uncertainty around sign-ups is frustrating as it makes it difficult to plan for land management for 17 endangered or critical species or those being monitored on CRP lands in the District.
USDA’s Hamilton noted the FSA was told the sign-up is in the President’s budget, but, at the time of this story, was not given a timeline about when it may occur.
“Producers who have contracts that expire may want to consider what they are going to do with the land,” said Chris Bieker, outreach coordinator at the FSA in Spokane. “They should be considering a transition program such as putting the land into grazing or back into production.”
She adds that another option is leasing land coming out of the CRP to beginning farmers. The FSA encourages this practice by paying the landowners two more years of rent if they lease the former CRP land to a beginning farmer.
All told, there have been 41 signups (general and continuous) since the 1985 Farm Bill initiated the program. But continued high commodity prices may reduce the acreage offered during the next CRP. “Historically,” said Roberts, “Land going into CRP decreases when prices are high and increases when prices are low.”
In their February 2011 USDA publication, The Influence of Rising Commodity Prices on the Conservation Reserve Program, ERR-110, Daniel Hellerstein and Scott Malcolm explored the potential of commodity prices remaining high to reduce the landowners’ willingness to enroll in CRP. During an interview for this article, Hellerstein noted that “over the last few years of high commodity prices, we seem to be getting fewer offers to put land into CRP.” “CRP will still get offers if maximum rental rates go up enough,” said Roberts. “These rates have gone up with commodity prices. It mainly comes down to political will in tight budget times.”
In the Northwest, though, Hamilton notes he has seen more acreage interest during the past two sign-ups.
The increased interest could be due to increased maximum rental rates in the Pacific Northwest. Maximum rental rates on the land are tied to estimates of county average rates, adjusted for soil quality as well. Roberts participated as a consultant to develop a supplementary environmental impact statement for the USDA that examined the likely effects of using a new survey of cash leases, recently undertaken due to concerns by Congress that earlier CRP rental rates were biased.
“For most areas, the rates in a new USDA survey turned out lower than the expert opinion rates, sometimes by a lot,” said Roberts. “But in the Pacific Northwest, the survey rates sometimes turned out slightly higher. So when they started using the new survey-based rates rather than the expert-opinion-based rates for setting maximum rates in the CRP, that change should have discouraged offers in the Midwest and South and procured an advantage to Pacific Northwest offers.”
The future of CRP
“With a new farm bill on the horizon,” said FSA’s Nelson, “There is much uncertainty amongst producers as to what the future of the CRP program might be.”
“The CRP has been shrinking since 2007,” said Hellerstein. “And if the FSA’s budgets don’t grow and commodity prices stay high, this shrinkage could continue.”
“The number one issue is cost,” said Hamilton of the new farm bill’s potential approach to CRP. Hamilton explained CRP is unique in that it has an acreage cap, but not a budget cap. “There is a lot of discussion about cutting the cap. I have heard a variety of options, including cutting up to 20 million acres.” One suggested idea for adjusting the CRP is a greater emphasis on continuous rather than general sign-ups to focus more on specific issues that need to be addressed regionally. Another alternative is developing long-term easements to replace 10-year rental agreements.
“I’m suggesting a degree of linkage between CRP expirations and ongoing working lands conservation programs that currently doesn’t exist,” said Ralph Heimlich of the Agricultural Conservation Economics and a former deputy director of USDA’s Economic Research Services. “The easement is really an alternative way to buy use rights from existing (or new) CRP landowners.”
In a 2008 RFF Weekly Public Commentary, Heimlich wrote about the potential benefits of recasting the CRP as a smaller, tighter, permanent conservation easement program. His premise is that these easements, though difficult to achieve because of the up-front costs, might allow for better targeting of priority lands, reduce the risk of the land being removed from conservation and keep more farmable land in production.
This sort of program will require transition help for those lands leaving CRP for noncropland uses, such as grazing, forestry and wildlife habitat, that will retain the benefits of conservation cover long after payments end. He suggests a permanent easement could be cost shared. “For a large parcel of CRP land to be used in a grazing operation, there may be some need to change the mix of grasses and install fencing to control cattle movements,” said Heimlich. “Some help to the producer from Environmental Quality Incentives Program or other working lands programs would help make that transition of uses possible and keep marginal land (both environmentally and economically) from going back into crop production as a default use.”
Lundgren of Lincoln County would like the CRP to increase its flexibility to ensure that deserving soils, such as Lincoln County’s, that have low precipitation and are not necessarily blow soils have a better chance to be eligible for enrollment. Even so, he is supportive of retaining the program and stated that he would like to see it “kept off the chopping block.”
“I have heard for years that CRP has a bad rep,” said Dudek, referencing the bad reputation a minority of farmers have given CRP by neglecting their land. “But for us, it has been very straightforward and is very popular among landowners in Douglas County.
“A lot of farmers are good stewards of the land,” continued Dudek. “They are not just being paid not to farm, they are farming habitat and doing a good job of it.”
Taylor of Adams County notes that part of the reason he uses the program is the observations he made while travelling abroad, both to regions that practice conservation and those where good farmland is now gone, and sees the benefit for our society.
“Maybe CRP is an insurance for society,” said Taylor. “Society benefits from what we’re doing, and they pay for it too.”