In 2009, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) celebrated its 23rd anniversary, and over two decades of conservation success. CRP was originally established in the 1985 Farm Bill, and today has over 400,000 landowners participating – most of which are farmers and ranchers – and involves over 31 million acres under some type of CRP contracts.

Some of the benefits of the CRP program over the past two decades cited by USDA include:

  • 450 million tons of soil erosion reduced annually
  • 2 million acres of wetlands and buffers restored
  • 48 million metric tons of carbon dioxide removed
  • 170,000 miles of stream bank protected along rivers and streams
  • An additional 2.3 million ducks produced each year from restored CRP wetlands
  • Enhanced populations of pheasants, quail and other wildlife species
  • There are currently 43 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs (CREP) in 32 states in targeted watersheds, which has generated over $ 1 billion in additional State and private funds for Federal conservation efforts through CRP.

As of Nov. 30, 2009, there were a total of 31.1 million acres enrolled in CRP, which is down 2.6 million acres from 33.7 million acres on Sept. 30, 2009, and down 5.7 million acres from 36.8 million acres on Sept. 30, 2007. CRP contracts expired on approximately 2.8 million acres on Sept. 30, 2009; however, an additional 180,523 acres were added to the CRP program at that time through continuous CRP enrollment and CREP enrollments. Currently there are approximately 26.7 million acres under general CRP contracts, 3.2 million acres under continuous CRP contracts and 1.2 million acres under CREP contracts. There has not been a general CRP sign-up the past few years, and no general CRP sign-up is planned in the immediate future. Sign-up for continuous CRP is on-going, and will continue to be on-going under the new farm bill. Continuous CRP targets the most sensitive environmental land areas, such as filter strips, buffers, wetlands, etc. CREP is a CRP partnership with state conservation programs, which target specific watersheds.

In May 2009, USDA offered CRP contract holders with contracts that expired Sept. 30, 2009, the opportunity to extend their expiring CRP contracts for an additional three to five years. USDA was relatively successful in getting enough acres for re-enrollment of expiring CRP acres to keep the total CRP acreage in the U.S. very close to the CRP acreage cap of 32 million acres, which was set by the new farm bill in 2008. The maximum CRP acreage in the U.S. was 39 million acres from 2002 to 2008. The re-enrollment of expiring CRP acreage varied widely across the U.S. in 2009, which most likely is a reflection of the higher profitability of corn and soybean production in recent years. Most Midwestern states in the heart of the Corn Belt had less than 25% of the expiring 2009 CRP contract extensions accepted, while most other areas of the U.S. had 75% or more of the extensions accepted. It will be interesting how crop economics influence CRP re-enrollment decisions in 2010, 2011 and 2012, when much higher levels of CRP acreage is set to expire.

Following is the listing of expiring CRP acres on Sept. 30 each year for 2009 and the following four years :

  • 2009: 2.8 million acres
  • 2010: 4.5 million acres
  • 2011: 4.4 million acres
  • 2012: 6.5 million acres
  • 2013: 3.3 million acres

Some of those acres are continuous CRP acres that are on more highly sensitive environmental lands, which will most likely be offered for and encouraged for CRP re-enrollment by USDA. However, the majority of the expiring CRP acres in the coming years are general CRP acres, which may or may not be offered up for re-enrollment by USDA, and landowners may not be as willing to re-enroll the CRP acres, if commodity prices remain at high levels.

The Future of CRP
USDA is currently developing a revised Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on CRP that will be released sometime in 2010. This will likely provide some guidance as to the future direction for CRP. There will likely continue to be economic incentives for CRP landowners to return some quality cropland acres to crop production to produce food and fuel. The pending climate-change legislation, including the carbon cap-and-trade system, could also have a major impact on the future of CRP. However, there may also be opportunities to help make CRP be part of the solution for advancing alternative energy sources and for addressing carbon sequestration issues.

The bottom-line is that CRP has 23 years of success of protecting sensitive environmental lands, reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and enhancing wildlife. CRP is very popular with farmers, the general public and with policy makers, and CRP will likely continue to be a major USDA conservation program. However, economic pressures, the need for renewable energy and climate-change efforts in the U.S. may lead to some changes in the future for the CRP program, compared to what CRP has looked like in the past two decades.

Editor’s note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.