The federal program that pays landowners to take environmentally fragile land out of crop production to prevent erosion, protect water quality, and preserve wildlife habitat will expand for the first time this year after losing ground annually since 2007. The USDA said on Monday that it expected a net gain in acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, which was retooled in April to help slow climate change.
The USDA said it will offer higher rental rates and larger incentive payments to landowners who agree to idle environmentally fragile farmland and introduced a new payment for climate-smart practices to slow climate change. The expansions would boost spending on the Conservation Reserve by $300 million or more annually, said the White House on Wednesday.
The USDA is days away from announcing "greater opportunities" for landowners to take fragile farmland out of production in exchange for an annual payment, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday. Since early February, the Biden administration has been mulling how to stop a 13-year decline in enrollment in the Conservation Reserve, the largest U.S. land set-aside program.
With enrollment on the decline for the 13th year in a row, the USDA said it would accept offers from landowners past the original deadline of Friday to take fragile cropland out of production for 10 years or longer. In announcing the extension, the USDA said that the Biden administration was looking for ways to bring land into the reserve.
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.