The Department of Agriculture will reserve another 2.5 million for special uses within the CRP, the 20-plus-year-old program designed to protect fragile natural resources and enhance the environment.

“The selection criteria used for this signup provide the greatest benefits for the most fragile lands,” the secretary said during a press conference at USDA. The lands selected will help address key environmental values such as air and water quality, soil erosion and wildlife habitat.”

First established by Congress in 1985, the CRP allows eligible farmers and ranchers to voluntarily establish long-term conservation practices on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive cropland. In exchange, they receive 10 to 15 years of annual rental payments and cost-share assistance for maintaining those practices.

For this 26th general signup, USDA selected 2.0 million of the 4.1 million acres offered by farmers. These are the most fragile of the cropland acres offered considering cost and optimize the environmental benefits of the CRP.

In the latest selection process, Veneman said the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), which ranks CRP offers based on five environmental factors as well as a cost factor, was updated to reflect the addition of carbon sequestration. The environmental factors are: 1) soil erosion; 2) water quality; 3) enduring benefits; 4) air quality; and 5) wildlife enhancement.

All offers were ranked on the same basis and offers with an EBI score of at least 269 were considered acceptable for enrollment. The average environmental benefits score of this sign-up is 302.

The average rental rate per acre was $56.53, providing annual rental payments of $112 million to farmers for the 2 million acres. This additional acreage raises the total acreage in the CRP to 36.1 million acres.

USDA received just over 71,000 offers for enrollment during the May 5 to June 13, 2003 sign up period and accepted 38,621. Offers accepted under this sign-up may become effective either on Oct. 1, 2003, or in the following year on Oct. 2, 2004, whichever the producer chooses.

Veneman noted that the 2002 farm bill authorized USDA to expand the CRP enrollment up to 39.2 million acres from the previous cap of 36.4 million acres. The current enrolled acreage stands at 34.1 million and contracts for some 2.2. million acres will be expiring by the end of the current program in 2007.

Of the total amount, about 2.5 million acres are reserved for special initiatives within CRP, including:

  • A continuous sign-up program, which provides an effective, ongoing means to protect the most environmentally sensitive land;
  • Planting flood plains to bottomland hardwood trees to help sequester greenhouse gases, improve water quality and restore wildlife habitat;
  • The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which is a federal-state partnership to target additional resources in defined geographic areas for conservation practices such as buffer and filter strips; and
  • The Farmable Wetland Program to protect certain farmed and prior converted wetlands
  • .
“These special initiatives are particularly helpful in targeting the program to the most pressing environmental needs,” Veneman said. “The CREP also is a great example of federal-state partnerships whereby our combined resources can help improve water quality and provide other amenities for both rural and urban people.”

Enrollment under the bottomland hardwoods initiative will be announced later this summer. USDA also indicated that another general sign-up is planned for the early part of next year.

More detailed information on the 26th general sign-up and on the CRP is available on FSA’s Web site at: www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/cepd/crpinfo.htm.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com