The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to make major changes in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, America's best-known agricultural conservation program.

The revisions include higher payment rates, new incentives, and "a more-targeted focus on the program's role in climate change mitigation," with the goal of adding up to 4 million more acres to the program, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced April 27.

USDA also will invest in partnerships to "increase climate-smart agriculture," including $330 million in 85 regional conservation partnership projects and $25 million for on-farm conservation innovation trials. And the federal ag agency will spend $140 million more to help increase technical assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the USDA.

"Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of you. With CRP, the United States has one of the world’s most successful voluntary conservation programs. We need to invest in CRP and let it do what it does best — preserve topsoil, sequester carbon, and reduce the impacts of climate change,” Vilsack said in a written statement.

More information about CRP can be found at https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/index.

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CRP pays landowners to take environmentally sensitive land out of production, with the land planted to grass and other vegetation. The amount of land enrolled in the program has declined in recent years, with CRP capped at 25 million acres and 20.8 million acres currently enrolled in it.

"We want to make sure CRP continues to be a valuable and effective conservation resource for our producers for decades to come,” Vilsack said.

Here are key details announced by USDA:

Climate-Smart Practice Incentive

To target the program on climate change mitigation, the Farm Service Agency (an arm of the USDA) is introducing a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive for CRP general and continuous signups that aims to increase carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate-Smart CRP practices include establishment of trees and permanent grasses, development of wildlife habitat, and wetland restoration. The Climate-Smart Practice Incentive is annual, and the amount is based on the benefits of each practice type.

Higher rental rates, new incentives

  • Adjusting soil rental rates. This enables additional flexibility for rate adjustments, including a possible increase in rates where appropriate.
  • Increasing payments for practice incentives from 20% to 50%. This incentive for continuous CRP practices is based on the cost of establishment and is in addition to cost share payments.
  • Increasing payments for water quality practices. Rates are increasing from 10% to 20% for certain water quality benefiting practices available through the CRP continuous signup, such as grassed waterways, riparian buffers, and filter strips.
  • Establishing a CRP grassland minimum rental rate. This benefits more than 1,300 counties with rates currently below the minimum.

Enhanced Natural Resource Benefits

  • Moving state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE) practices to the CRP continuous signup. Unlike the general signup, producers can sign up year-round for the continuous signup and be eligible for additional incentives.
  • Establishing National Grassland Priority Zones. This aims to increase enrollment of grasslands in migratory corridors and environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Making Highly Erodible Land Initiative (HELI) practices available in both the general and continuous signups.

Prairie Pothole Soil Health, Watershed programs

CRP has two pilot programs: the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) and the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers 30-year contracts (CLEAR30).

  • For SHIPP, which is a short-term option (3-, 4- or 5-year contracts) for farmers to plant cover on less productive agricultural lands, FSA will hold a 2021 signup in the Prairie Pothole states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana.
  • The CLEAR30 pilot, a long-term option through CRP, will be expanded from the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay pilot regions to nationwide.