The U.S. Department of Agriculture's plan to expand the Conservation Reserve Program has received both praise and wariness from ag groups.
The National Association of Conservation Districts and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition commended the expansion, while the National Grain and Feed Association said it wants to see more details and that CRP "should be targeted at the most environmentally sensitive portions of farms."
The revisions announced in late April 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, according to USDA.
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.
Even before the newly announced revision, it was clear that the Biden administration and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack were placing renewed emphasis on CRP. In early February, for example, USDA announced that the existing Feb. 12 deadline for the CRP general signup would be extended. The Biden administration said it wanted more time to evaluate ways of increasing enrollment in the program, the country's best-known ag conservation program.
Reaction to CRP expansion reflects long-standing differences in how various segments of American ag view the program. Supporters of the program consider it prudent, even necessary, protection of U.S. farmland. Some others in ag, however, say it can reduce sales of crop inputs and also cause less grain to be harvested, a combination that can hurt rural communities.
Both attitudes were visible in reaction to CRP expansion.
The National Association of Conservation District "applauds the announcement that USDA is adjusting rental rates and incentive payments for CRP,” Association president Michael Crowder said in a written statement.
“Inadequate compensation for landowners has led to low enrollment in the program in the past year. These increased rental rates and incentives are critical to ensuring farmers are appropriately compensated for participating in CRP. With these incentives in place, we hope to see full enrollment in the program," Crowder said.
The nonprofit NACD represents the nation's 3,000 conservation district and the state and territory associations.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in turn, said the enhancements "send a clear signal to farmers that enrollments of high payoff practices like riparian buffers, prairie strips, and grass waterways will be worth their while." among other benefits.
The Coalition describes itself "as a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources and rural communities."
The Grain and Feed Association said it wants to work to with the Biden administration and Congress "to keep U.S. agriculture competitive."
To do that, CRP should be targeted at the most environmentally sensitive portions of farms and avoid enrollment of whole farms or large tracts of productive farmland. Programs that "drastically increase acreage idling in the United States send market signals to competitors to plant more acres, resulting in negative climate and environmental impacts," NGFA said in a written statement.
"We look forward to hearing additional details from USDA and working with the department to ensure this acreage is targeted for the most substantial environmental benefits while preserving U.S. agricultural productivity and competitiveness," NGFA said.
The association, established in 1896, consists of more than 1,000 grain, feed, processing, exporting and other grain-related companies that operate more than 7,000 facilities and handle more than 70 percent of all U.S. grains and oilseeds.