CRP Acres Slip Over 13-Year Period

Jan 7, 2022  | 7 min  | Ep4721

Acreage battles happen every year as producers look to plant acres giving them the best chance at making money. 

However, the holders of millions of acres that have been set aside for environmental and financial gain are approaching a big decision. 

Here’s Colleen Bradford Krantz in this week’s Cover Story.

Melanie Aldrich, Emmons, Minnesota: “So this here is my CRP. There’s about 95 acres.”

Melanie Aldrich, a southern Minnesotan who previously farmed, stopped renting her land in 2015 and enrolled it in the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program. Aldrich had grown tired of wondering every year which area farmer might rent the ground.

Melanie Aldrich, Emmons, Minnesota: “It was kind of a guaranteed income and really just a simple, like, I didn’t have to worry about is the farmer going to rent it next year.”

She signed a 10-year contract, which began in 2016, and is planning to reapply when it expires in 2026, assuming the payments remain competitive. But she says more farmers in the area prefer to plant crops or graze livestock.

Melanie Aldrich, Emmons, Minnesota: “I think smaller farmers are trying to farm as much ground as they can, and, you know, most people who own farms that are farmers want to farm the ground.”

Aldrich may be right about the mood of most farmers; the nation’s total acres enrolled in the various federal CRP programs has been on a downward trend for an unprecedented 13 years. The federal government is also facing the expiration of millions of acres’ worth of CRP contracts, a phenomenon that occurs 10 and 15 years after a large general CRP signup.

Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst, MinnStar Bank: “Before the current year, you were at 20.5 million acres. So if your goal was to get to 27 million acres by the end of ‘23, you had to add about 6.5 million acres to get there. Plus you had these 9 million acres expiring. So that’s 15 million acres that you need to be looking at so that’s almost 75 percent of what you had enrolled in CRP. It’s a pretty daunting task.”

Most experts agree the primary factor in a landowner’s decision to try to enroll comes down to commodity prices. The peak in total CRP acres came in 2007, when the nation had 36.8 million acres enrolled. But when corn prices surpassed $7 a bushel the following year, then a historic high, farmers began placing fewer acres in conservation programs.

Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst, MinnStar Bank: “And part of that was intentional by government policy lowering the maximum CRP acres in the 2014 Farm Bill to 24 million acres. And part of it has been economics because of improved profitability in crop production.”

Although federal officials have a maximum number of CRP acres that can be enrolled at a given time, it is becoming more unusual to approach that ceiling.

Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst, MinnStar Bank: “There’s also limits on acreage within given counties and that part of that is related to maintaining agriculture, but also maintaining the overall economic viability in a community… That was basically done by Congress because of hearing from their farmer constituents that suddenly the USDA through the U.S. federal government was competing on land rental rates at an unfair basis…It was especially difficult for new or beginning farmers that were trying to rent land and, all of a sudden, the landowners is saying, ‘Well, I can get X amount of dollars for CRP. I can’t afford to rent it to you for this.’”

Thiesse points out that when the CRP program was kicked off in 1986, it was largely focused on reducing crop surpluses that were depressing commodity prices. The program now places greater emphasis on environmental aspects, meaning land along rivers or hilly areas is now far more likely to be accepted. In southern Minnesota, for example, the decline in acres and shift in location can be seen when taking a look at four key years between 1988 and 2019.

Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst, MinnStar Bank: “The biggest increase we’ve seen in the last couple years in CRP acres has tended to be in the plain states and mountain states, where states like Minnesota, Iowa and Midwestern states have seen their CRP acreages going down… Interestingly, in 2018…specialized grassland CRP acres only made up about 2 percent of the total U.S. CRP acres and now it makes up 18 percent.”

Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux says the agency is hoping to add greater flexibility when it comes to grazing livestock on CRP ground. Typically, grazing or baling hay on those restricted acres has only been allowed when specified in a contract or during periods of extreme drought. Ducheneaux says allowing more routine grazing would mean livestock producers could count on that grass from year to year.

Zach Ducheneaux, FSA Administrator: “One of the things we are examining is can we find the authority and support from Congress, our authorizers and our appropriators to stack our programs. So if we have this enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, can we come in there in times of drought with our emergency conservation program and help them put the hot wire fence and the temporary water source there?...There’s an argument made by some in the soil health field… that harvesting with animals is a more environmentally friendly, more wildlife-friendly method than harvesting mechanically.

Ducheneaux is optimistic the agency will regain lost ground by bringing in landowners who have not traditionally signed up, by emphasizing programs such as CRP Grasslands, which was new in the 2014 Farm Bill, and by possibly tying in carbon sequestration incentives.

Zach Ducheneaux, FSA Administrator: “Of the three million expiring acres last year, 62 percent were reenrolled in conservation programs. So we think that’s a pretty good indicator of the success of the program. More acres are staying in than are going out… So we have to make sure that we are providing a proper base of incentives for producers to have a viable choice.”

Contact: Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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