The USDA says a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up period will begin on March 14 and run through April 15. To complete the process, farmers and landowners are being directed to county Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices.

“These are competitive contracts,” said Jonathan Coppess, FSA administrator during a late-January press conference. “So, (landowners) will offer that land up for a contract. So long as they meet requirements for years of production, erodibility index of the land and environmental benefits, we’ll complete the forms, sign them up and go from there.”

First-time participants will need proof of land ownership and, possibly, other documents to confirm land is eligible. For those new to CRP, “we recommend you call the county (FSA) office in advance and ask what documentation may be required and schedule a meeting to sit down with folks in the county office,” said Coppess.

For lease-holders, “you need to provide the lease agreement that covers the length of time you’ll be obligated to the CRP contracts.”

The contracts normally run 10 years and any lease must usually cover the CRP contract’s time period. The new CRP contracts will begin Oct. 1, 2011, and run through Sept. 30 of the ending year – in most cases 2021 (although some contracts run for 15 years).

What about producers who offer land for CRP and yet plan to plant and harvest it in 2011? What happens if the acreage is accepted into the program and the crop isn’t harvested by Oct. 1?

“The beginning of the CRP contract period will not affect harvest – even if it occurs after Oct. 1,” said Brandon Woods, FSA deputy administrator for farm programs.

To be eligible for CRP, land must have been in crops for four of the six years between 2002 through 2007.

Also keep in mind: CRP payments are made in arrears. Rental payments for the first year of the contract will not be made until October 2012.

“The 2008 farm bill revised the total maximum number of acres allowed to 32 million,” said Coppess. “Right now, we’re just over 31 million acres. We expect about 4.4 million acres to expire on Sept. 30. So, we’re looking to utilize this general sign-up … to continue Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack’s charge to the agency to stay as close to the 32 million-acre statutory cap as we can.”

For the program, “we continue to emphasize our search for the environmentally-sensitive land to be used for conservation benefits,” said Woods.Producers enrolling in CRP should be prepared to plant long-term resource conserving cover such as grasses. In exchange, FSA provides annual rental payments, cost-share and technical assistance.”

There are a few regional considerations, said Woods. “Counties can only enroll up to 25 percent of their cropland in CRP and/or the WRP (administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service).”

How is land judged for conservation benefits?

“A couple of different ways,” said Woods. “We have an index to measure how erodible the land is and another to measure specific environmental benefits. Land offered in this sign-up will be evaluated using those factors.”

After the April 15 deadline, “we’ll evaluate all the offers and then notify producers on whether their offer has been accepted or rejected.”

Questions answered

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.”