The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will issue nearly $1.7 billion in payments to more than half of a million Americans who have contracts with the government to protect sensitive agricultural lands. The investment, part of the voluntary USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), will allow producers to protect almost 24 million acres of wetlands, grasslands and wildlife habitat in 2016.
CRP provides financial assistance to farmers and ranchers who remove environmentally sensitive land from production to be planted with certain grasses, shrubs and trees that improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and increase wildlife habitat. In return for enrolling in CRP, USDA, through the Farm Service Agency (FSA), provides participants with rental payments and cost-share assistance. Landowners enter into contracts that last between 10 and 15 years.
"We have seen record demand to participate in this important program,” said Vilsack. “Despite the current enrollment limit of 24 million acres, USDA is committed to continuing our important partnerships with farmers, ranchers, state and local governments and sportsmen to maintain the environmental benefits provided by the Conservation Reserve Program.”
More than 1.3 million acres were newly enrolled in CRP in fiscal year 2016 using the continuous enrollment authority, double the pace of the previous year. In fiscal year 2016, FSA also accepted 411,000 acres through its general enrollment authority, plus 101,000 acres in the new CRP-Grasslands program, which balances conservation with working lands. More than 70% of the acres enrolled in CRP-Grasslands are diverse native grasslands under threat of conversion, with more than 97% of the acres having a new, veteran or underserved farmer or rancher as a primary producer.
During its 30-year history, CRP has reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 95 and 85%, respectively, and restored 2.7 million acres of wetlands. It has also protected more than 170,000 stream miles with riparian buffers, enough to go around the world seven times. The program provides 15 million acres that are beneficial to pollinators, and hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat that has resurrected waterfowl and gamebird populations, like pheasants, quail and prairie chicken.
Included among the farmers and ranchers enrolled this year are those who could have otherwise chosen to return their expiring CRP acres back to production, “making the water quality implications of this record-breaking 1.3 million-acre CCRP sign up especially significant,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).
“Conservation gains will be made on enrolled lands through conservation buffer practices, which keep nutrients and soil on the land and out of adjacent waterways,” NASC said. “This year's strong enrollment numbers are also a major victory for wildlife habitat conservation. Many of the FY 2016 CCRP acres are likely to be enrolled in wildlife-related practices, which will target support to the most at-risk habitats.”
CRP has sequestered an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to taking nine million cars off the road, and prevented nine billion tons of soil from erosion, enough to fill 600 million dump trucks.