A new lease on life has been promised for the federal government’s most extensive exercise in private land retirement, the Conservation Reserve Program.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced in late February that a new general signup will be held this year — the first since 2006 — and that the USDA’s intent is to keep enrollment at or near the maximum authorized level of 32 million acres.

Concern has been growing about the program, which has had widespread benefit in controlling erosion, reestablishing native grasslands, and providing critical habitat for waterfowl, pheasants, quail, and other wildlife that was increasingly being pushed out by cultivation and development. It is considered by many the most important program for preserving and enhancing key habitat, including the Mississippi River flyway.

The 2008 farm bill reauthorized the CRP through 2012, but cut the national allotment from 39.2 million acres to 32 million, and with the economic crash and federal budget cuts, it had been reported that the Obama administration was considering slashing it even more, to 24 million.

Thus, Vilsack’s announcement was roundly welcomed by conservation groups that had watched in recent years as contracts expired on several million acres of land, many of which weren’t renewed. With the ethanol boom and record corn, soybean, and wheat prices, the CRP income was judged inadequate and many farmers elected to return CRP acres to crop production, mowing and burning off land that had been in grasses and native vegetation for a decade or more.

In April this year, enrollment was 31.2 million acres. That’s about 3.5 million below October 2008, and nearly 2.5 million below September 2009. Of the 3.9 million acres in contracts that expired in 2009, the USDA offered extensions for only 1.5 million.

A large chunk of acres under contract, 4.5 million, is scheduled to expire in September this year.

It will be interesting to see things actually play out with the announced continuation of CRP at its authorized level and whether farmers holding expiring contracts will consider it economically feasible to renew them, given the often significant difference between CRP income and what could be obtained from cropping the land or renting it for crops.

While the heaviest enrollments in CRP have been in the west Texas/Oklahoma panhandles, western Kansas, Iowa, and the Dakotas, hundreds of thousands of acres were enrolled down through west Tennessee, over much of Mississippi, eastern Louisiana, and across into the southern areas of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Vilsack also said that the USDA has approved an additional 300,000 acres under CRP that will include 150,000 acres for the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Initiative; 50,000 for the Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative; and 100,000 for the Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds Initiative.

The agency had previously announced a new Transitions Incentives Program aimed at encouraging retiring farm owners or operators to transition their expiring CRP land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com