Lawmakers decided as part of the 2018 farm policy law to expand the voluntary Conservation Reserve, which pays landowners an annual rent in exchange for idling fragile farmland for 10 years or longer. Although the expansion was expected to be popular — offering steady income after years of low commodity prices — it hasn't panned out. Enrollment continues a decline that began in 2007.
The USDA accepted nearly 2 out of every 3 acres that were offered this spring for enrollment into the Conservation Reserve grasslands initiative, 1.2 million acres in all, said the Farm Service Agency on Thursday.
The 2018 farm law allows an additional 3 million acres into the land-idling Conservation Reserve, partly to offset the low market prices that followed the collapse of the commodity boom earlier this decade. Lawmakers may opt for another expansion of the reserve if farmers face mountains of surplus grain and continued low prices, said two University of Illinois economists.
Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve has paid landowners an annual rent to idle environmentally fragile land under contracts that last for 10 or 15 years. Now a pilot program will offer a 30-year contract in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay regions.
The USDA will pay an annual rent of $55 an acre on land entering the Conservation Reserve through the recently completed signup, a drop of $8 an acre from the last time landowners idled large tracts of land in the reserve, said a USDA spokeswoman on Wednesday.
The lower rental rates set in the 2018 farm law for the Conservation Reserve may be discouraging enrollment in the program to idle fragile farmland. The USDA said on Thursday that it had accepted for entry 9 of every 10 acres offered in the recently completed "general" signup, for a total of 3.4 million acres — 2 million fewer acres than will leave the reserve this fall.
The Conservation Reserve signup that opens on Monday could see landowners idle the largest amount of fragile cropland in years, said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, although some analysts say lower government payment rates will hold down enrollment in the program.
The USDA will hold its first “general” signup for the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program under the 2018 farm bill in early December, and “we expect to enroll a large number of acres,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Steve Censky on Thursday.
Farmers can expect a deluge of federal payments in the weeks ahead to cushion the effect of farm exports lost to the trade war and plantings washed away by the rainiest spring in a quarter-century, say analysts. "It's probably going to be August" when the biggest shower of payments begins, the multibillion-dollar, stop-gap Market Facilitation Program, according to Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey, who oversees farm subsidies.