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Conservation freeze: Popular program sees change

WASHINGTON — New enrollment in a popular conservation program has been frozen, but producers interested in it shouldn't give up hope, a sustainable agriculture official says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture as of May 3 quit enrolling new acres in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program because the larger program of which it is a part had reached its acreage cap.

But the USDA will continue to accept offers (or applications) for CCRP, though qualified offers won't be accepted and enrolled until the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, says Greg Fogel, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The Washington, D.C.-based organization works to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources and rural communities.

What's more, farmers in some states still have access to a state-level subset of CCRP, he says.

Some definitions are in order:

The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, allows participating farmers to take marginal cropland out of production in return for rental payments. The land is placed in grasses and sometimes trees to conserve soil, protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat. There are specific sign-up periods for CRP.

CCRP is an offshoot of CRP. It pays farmers to install partial field conservation practices, primarily buffers, to protect soil and water quality and wildlife habitat. In contrast to CRP, land can be enrolled in CCRP at any time, which accounts for the "continuous" in name.

State Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs, or CREP, are a subset of CCRP. While the latter is handled exclusively at the federal level, CREP involves the federal and state governments. Some, but not all, states are involved in CREP, which targets specific high-priority projects identified by state, local or tribal governments.

The Farm Service Agency, or FSA, is the arm of the USDA that administers CRP, CCRP and CREP. Landowners or farmers interested in the conservation programs should contact their local FSA office.

Farm bill cap

The federal farm bill, the centerpiece of U.S. food and ag policy, caps CRP acres at 24 million. Acreage had been nearing that limit, prompting the freeze until the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, Fogel says.

"Interest in continuous enrollment has been very high recently," Fogel says, pointing to record enrollment in 2015 and 2016.

Poor crop prices account for at least some of the interest, he says.

About 2.5 million acres enrolled in CRP will expire on Sept. 30, 2017, the end of fiscal year 2017, which will open the door for the USDA to add acres while remaining below the 24-million-acre cap, Fogel says.

But it's uncertain whether those acres will be added through a new general CRP sign-up or through CRRP.

"We're urging them (USDA) to proceed with continuous enrollment at the start of fiscal year," Fogel says.

There's widespread speculation in ag circles that the 24-million-acre cap will be raised in the next farm bill.

"There are people pushing for that, certainly," Fogel says. "It (size of the cap) swings back and forth like a pendulum with every farm bill."

Now, given poor crop prices, interest in conservation programs is growing, increasing pressure to raise the cap, he says.

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