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Thune, Donnelly Lead Bipartisan Letter Urging USDA to Maximize CRP Enrollment, Conduct General Signup

Without a Fiscal Year 2015 general signup, CRP enrollment could drop to 3 million acres below its acreage cap

April 23, 2015

Washington, D.C. — 

Today, U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) led a bipartisan group of 10 senators in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack strongly encouraging him to take whatever steps necessary, including conducting a general signup in fiscal year 2015, to keep Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment near the annual acreage caps authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill.

“CRP has evolved over the past 30 years into a versatile soil and water conservation and wildlife habitat program, that also provides a solid economic alternative for farmers in place of producing expensive crops on marginal land,” said Thune. “Because general CRP signups account for the highest percentage of enrolled acres and are the most cost-effective, we need a general CRP signup each year to keep enrollment at its maximum level.”

“The Conservation Reserve Program is critical to reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and providing wildlife habitats,” said Donnelly. “This program helps both our agriculture businesses and conservation efforts. That is why my Senate colleagues and I are urging the USDA to make sure that eligible landowners have every opportunity to participate. I appreciate the opportunity to work with Senator Thune on this bipartisan effort.”

First authorized under the 1985 Farm Bill, CRP is administered by USDA. CRP enrollment peaked at 37 million acres in 2007, but has dropped to its current enrollment of 24.29 million acres. The 2014 Farm Bill-authorized nationwide CRP acreage cap for fiscal year 2015 is 26 million acres. More than 1.9 million acres enrolled in CRP contracts expire September 30, 2015. Unless a large number of acres are enrolled in CRP during the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015, CRP enrollment may be nearly 3.6 million acres under the enrolled acreage cap at the end of this fiscal year.

More than 18 million acres or about 75 percent of the current CRP enrollment of 24.29 million acres enrolled via general signups, which indicates the important contribution general CRP signups are to overall enrollment. To emphasize cost-effectiveness of general CRP signups, the average rental rate for acres enrolled under general CRP signups is $66.34 and the average rental rate for acres enrolled in continuous CRP is $110.89.

Joining Thune and Donnelly in their letter are Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Text of the senators’ letter follows:

April 23, 2015

The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

We thank you and your team at the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for your efforts to implement critical provisions of the Agriculture Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill).  As you continue to make implementation decisions pursuant to the intent of Congress, please keep in mind that decisions regarding Conservation Title programs have lasting and significant impacts on the agricultural landscape.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the most critical Conservation Title programs, and the undersigned members of the U.S. Senate write to clarify the intent of the language passed into law.

CRP was originally established under the Food Security Act of 1985 and over the past 30 years has evolved into one of the most important and versatile federal programs for both agricultural producers and conservationists.  Annually, CRP reduces soil erosion by millions of tons, improves water quality for millions of people, and provides millions of acres of wildlife habitat.  CRP also serves as an effective component of the “farm safety net” by helping producers mitigate risks associated with price and production by providing an alternative to raising crops on less productive, environmentally sensitive lands.

Nearly 37 million acres were enrolled in CRP at its peak in 2007; however, as authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, the CRP acreage cap will be reduced to 26 million acres in fiscal year 2015, 25 million acres in fiscal year 2016, and 24 million acres in fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

Although the 2014 Farm Bill lowered the CRP acreage cap, this reduction does not signal waning congressional support for CRP.  It is our intent that USDA provide adequate enrollment periods, including general CRP signups, in order to ensure eligible landowners are not denied sufficient opportunity to enroll their land and to ensure CRP does not remain undersubscribed. 

The combination of larger tracts enrolled through the more cost-effective general CRP signups in close proximity to Continuous CRP (CCRP) or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) enrolled acres maximizes the wildlife and recreational benefits of CRP, CCRP, and CREP and provides the most cost-effective use of CRP expenditures.  CRP must be allowed to continue as one of USDA’s key conservation programs in concert with working lands conservation efforts.

Though the authorized CRP acreage cap for fiscal year 2015 is 26 million acres, as of February 2015 only 24.29 million acres were enrolled.  With 1.9 million acres enrolled in contracts that expire on September 30, CRP may have a total enrollment of only 22.39 million acres at the end of this fiscal year, nearly 3.6 million acres under the allowed acreage cap. 

Accordingly, we strongly encourage you to take whatever steps necessary to keep CRP enrollment near the annual acreage caps authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, including conducting a general CRP signup during fiscal year 2015 and in future years as needed. In addition, please let us know specifically how you plan to keep CRP enrollment at or near its authorized acreage caps for the duration of 2014 Farm Bill.

Thank you for your consideration of our request. We stand ready to work with you to ensure CRP enrollment does not fall below the levels Congress intended.