USDA will not release CRP acres penalty free

By Susanne Retka Schill
Web exclusive posted August 1, 2008 at 10:48 a.m. CST

The USDA has decided not to allow the early release of Conservation Reserve Program acres without penalty to landowners.

Just over 34 million acres are enrolled in the CRP, which pays landowners an annual rent to idle environmentally fragile land for 10 years or more.

Along with other species of prairie grass, switchgrass, a native, warm-season prairie grass, is widely grown on CRP land. Switchgrass is being studied as a potential energy crop because it produces about 70 percent of the energy that an equal weight of coal could produce.

The USDA considered the recent crop reports, weather conditions, and grain market price trends in making the decision. "Even with the damage and delays in planting caused by the floods, this year's corn crop is on track to be the second largest on record with an anticipated harvest of almost 79 million acres," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said.

Schafer said another factor considered in making the decision not to allow penalty-free withdrawals from CRP is the pending drop in acres already built into the new Farm Bill and existing contracts. The 2008 Farm Bill lowered the cap on total number of acres allowed in the CRP program from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres. "As a result, the 34.7 million acres now enrolled in the program will have to shrink," he said. "And looking out over the next few years, we have 1.1 million CRP acres scheduled to expire on Sept. 30 of this year, and that number jumps to 3.8 million acres on Sept. 30, 2009, and then 4.4 million acres on Sept. 30, 2010. So large blocks of land will be available for other uses, if land owners choose to pursue them."

DTN agriculture reporter Chris Clayton commented in a recent webinar that the USDA's decision on doing an early-out program for CRP acres would be less likely after a court decision in Seattle regarding USDA's proposed haying and grazing program. "The judge was critical of USDA," he said. "They didn't do an environmental impact statement on the haying and grazing changes."

Clayton said in the 2008 Farm Bill there are other changes to conservation programs. Understanding that acres will be coming out of CRP, Congress retooled an existing program, the Conservation Security Program, and renamed it as the Conservation Stewardship Program. The working lands program is authorized to enroll 13 million to 80 million acres per year. "It will effectively overtake CRP as the biggest conservation program at USDA," Clayton said. Farmers will receive payments for environmental practices such as leaving buffer strips to protect wetlands and rivers, erosion control practices and tillage practices. Unlike CRP, the CSP program will allow continuous signups. Rules for CSP are not likely to be out until late this winter, Clayton predicted.

Two provisions in particular relating to biomass projects are also included in the Farm BIll. The legislation creates a Cooperative Conservation Partnership which will allow groups, such as environmental groups or farmers, to bundle a number of landowners into a single project to be submitted to the USDA for conservation funding. And, while the cap for payments in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program was lowered, there is a possibility for waivers. "An example would be of a dairy (operation) that is putting in a methane system that feeds the community power," Clayton said. "That kind of operation might continue to get larger funding."