USDA officials took a page from the book of professional sports teams last year. They offered signing bonuses to hype interest in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

To be specific, USDA threw out a $350 million allocation in May 2000 to attract greater farmer participation in the program, which started in l996.

Did it get results? You bet.

“We had about 200,000-250,000 acres enrolled before these extra signing bonuses were offered. Now we're around 400,000-450,000, so we've nearly doubled,” says Dann Stuart, USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) information officer. FSA administers the program.

Incentives were offered because participation in the program, which provides an annual per acre rental payment, had fallen short of the goal established in the Clean Water Action Plan, explains Kent Thiesse, University of Minnesota extension educator. Annual CRP rental rates are based on average cash rent rates for cropland in a given area.

“The up-front signing bonus is $10/acre for each year of the CRP contract,” Thiesse says. “Contracts must be for a minimum of 10 years and can be for a maximum of 15 years, so the signing bonus will be $100-150/acre enrolled in Continuous CRP. The landowner will get the payment after the CRP contract is approved and all payment eligibility criteria are met.”

USDA, through survey work and focus group sessions, found that producers were interested in the program. The stumbling block was the out-of-pocket expenses to establish the conservation practices.

Enter the signup bonus incentive. The pot was also sweetened with another 40% incentive payment for installing approved conservation practices on Continuous CRP land. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which provides the technical assistance for the program, must approve the practices installed.

The 40% incentive payment is on top of the 50% cost-share that already exists for installing those conservation practices, explains Thiesse.

“So, effectively, between the cost-sharing and the practice incentive payment, a producer receives 90% of the establishment cost,” notes FSA's Stuart. “The signing incentive bonus is on top of that, and it provides some seed money, so to speak, to get these practices installed. A maintenance compensation payment is generally $5/acre and in instances where fencing is involved with riparian buffers, up to $10/acre.”

Conservation practices that are eligible for the new Continuous CRP incentive include: filter strips, riparian buffers, grass waterways, field windbreaks, shelter belts and living snow fences.

“With the advent of the Continuous CRP and CREP, the conservation program is very targeted toward environmental improvements,” says Stuart. “The benefits for the general public are tremendous because it improves the land for water quality, hunting, fishing and other recreation.”

What about participating farmers? Roger Widman, a corn and soybean grower near Minnesota Lake, MN, has 160 acres in CRP overall, with about 25 acres in the Continuous CRP. He enrolled those 25 acres before the signing bonus, and he's still sold 100%.

“Like most farmers, we want to keep our environment as clean as we can,” Widman says. “And to be realistic, the monetary part was very attractive, especially on land along waterways or drainage ditches, which often isn't as consistently productive anyway.”

He's installed 33'-wide filter strips on either side of a drainage ditch, and pipes run through the berms so no water goes over the grassed banks to erode them.

“There's more to life than just going out here and raising corn and beans. This is good for the environment to boot,” Widman notes.