Those who sign up will likely know if their land made the cut by mid-May. “Last sign-up, we let producers know about three weeks after the sign-up closed,” said Woods.

How many acres does the FSA plan to accept for the new sign-up?

“For budgetary purposes, we estimate about 3.95 million acres would be accepted into the CRP,” said Coppess.

With current commodity prices rising, how does the USDA justify running CRP at maximum enrollment and potentially driving feed/food prices even higher?

In answering that question – put to them several ways during the press conference – both men repeatedly used the word “balance.”

The situation “highlights … the need to balance production and conservation,” said Coppess. “There are two main points I’d make about CRP and how it operates.

“First, we’re only accepting land that is highly erodible and, thus, is less productive and unlikely to be land that’s needed. The first stage of that in this process is the farmer/landowner has to make that decision – a corn grower looking at $6.50 corn is not going to put productive land in this program. Frankly, the rental rates (for CRP) aren’t going to make up the difference…

“Second, from the administrative side, we see this as a competitive process and only want to accept land with a high erodibility index. That land competes based on the environmental benefits it provides.”

With the 2008 farm bill putting a cap of 32 million acres on CRP, “we’ve adjusted the program … to make sure we’re targeting those limited acres and dollars to the land that gets the most conservation benefits. That’s what we’re after.

“It isn’t an issue where we’re sacrificing production or productive capability. We’re really working to strike a balance.”

If high commodity prices continue is there a chance CRP acreage will dip as more land is put into production?

“We’re watching (commodity prices) and continue to evaluate them with a lot of the research and economic capabilities within the USDA,” said Coppess. CRP acreage “goes in for 10-year contracts. We’re working to make sure we strike a balance over the long-term between the need for production and the need for conservation…

“As the next farm bill comes up, there has been a lot of discussion about (CRP) and how it looks for the future. One of the things we want to make certain of is that we look at CRP” in the proper light. The program “has demonstrated success for 25 years (in) the amount of soil that has been protected and kept from eroding and habitat built up.

“If you think about the level of productivity the American farmer has shown over the last 40 years … we continue to find ways to produce more and more commodities off the same number, or fewer, acres,” said Coppess. “We can continue to strike that balance.”