Conservation Reserve Program

Conservation Reserve Program

The Conservation Reserve Program – or CRP – is the largest public-private partnership for conservation and wildlife habitat in the United States. Participants have planted about 2.7 million acres to trees, making it the largest federal tree-planting program in history.

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs the program, which pays farmers and ranchers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips, or riparian buffers. As of Jan. 31, 2009, landowners had enrolled 33.65 million acres in the program. Much of the acreage is in the Great Plains, with Texas (3.9 million acres), Montana (3.3 million acres), Kansas (3.1 million acres), North Dakota (3 million acres), and Colorado (2.4 million acres) leading the nation in enrolled farmland.

Congress created the CRP in 1985 to help control soil erosion, stabilize land prices, and control excessive agricultural production. Since then, it has expanded to include many environmental goals. Landowners bid to retire their land from production for 10 to 15 years. The FSA chooses land that ranks highest on its Environmental Benefits Index. Factors include wildlife habitat, erosion control, and air and water quality benefits as well as carbon sequestration potential of planted cover crops.

CRP includes several subprograms, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and the Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP).

The FSA runs two sign-ups, a general competitive sign-up within specified enrollment periods and a continuous sign-up that is noncompetitive and focuses on specific environmental benefits. For accepted acreage, the agency pays an annual per-acre rental fee based on the agriculture rental value of the land while providing up to 50% of the cost of planting cover crops on the land. FSA will pay $1.8 billion in rental payments in fiscal 2009 for all CRP acreage. The average per-acre rental rate in January 2009 was $51, with an average of $44 per acre per year for the general sign-up acreage and $128 for the CREP acreage.

FSA estimates that, compared with 1982 erosion rates, the CRP has reduced erosion by more than 454 million tons per year on the land enrolled in the program. Through April 2006, CRP had also restored 2 million acres of wetlands and 2.5 million acres of buffers. Other conservation benefits the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has documented include sequestering more than 48 million metric tons of carbon annually; establishing more than 3.2 million acres of wildlife habitat; and reducing the application of nitrogen by 681,000 tons and phosphorus by 104,000 tons.

NRCS estimated that, prior to 2003, monetized CRP benefits (such as increased wildlife habitat and small game hunting) averaged about $1.4 billion per year. The figure did not include nonmonetized benefits such as improved groundwater quality and wetland restoration.

FSA has released a number of reports that details CRP’s positive environmental effects on air and water quality and fish and wildlife. Included are two federal studies released in 2007 that showed the positive effects the CRP had on grassland birds in North and South Dakota and duck populations in the Dakotas and eastern Montana.

Additional Resources

Farm Service Agency

FSA Conservation Reserve Program 2006 Annual Report

FSA CRP environmental effects studies

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Congressional Research Service report

Fish and wildlife study

Grassland bird study

Duck species study

CRP Subprograms

  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

    The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program provides private landowners with annual incentives to keep land out of agricultural production in specified geographic areas, such as watersheds or wetlands.

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