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Conservatively speaking

The latest CRP general sign-up saw a 40 percent drop in Washington state's acceptance rate. What happened?

August/September 2016
By Trista Crossley


For some Eastern Washington producers, the latest conservation sign-up left them holding dust instead of a new contract.

In the past few years, Washington state has averaged a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acceptance rate of about 90 percent, but for the 2016 general sign-up, that rate plummeted to approximately 50 percent. In fact, several counties had no acres accepted. The pain was felt across the U.S., where the average acceptance rate was 23 percent. According to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers CRP, Washington state had the highest number of acres accepted at 116,000. The next highest state was Colorado with 48,000 acres accepted.

“I think there are areas in the state that have natural resource concerns and need CRP in their business plan,” said Nicole Berg, Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ Natural Resource Committee chair. “So when a county doesn’t get anything in CRP, especially when it’s land that’s been in CRP before, I think we really need to take a step back at the state level and figure out a way to get this conservation tool back into those farmers’ toolboxes.”

For Berg, one of her biggest concerns is land that is highly erodible and hard to grow crops on didn’t get accepted into the program.

“CRP did a lot for air and water quality and to take that tool away is not in the best interests of Washington state,” she explained. “That those lands didn’t get back in with a resource issue like that gives me great concern.”

CRP was signed into law in 1985 by President Reagan. Under CRP, producers agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant species that will improve air, water and/or wildlife habitat quality in exchange for a yearly payment. In order to qualify to even apply for a CRP contract, a producer must have owned the land for at least 12 months (except in cases of a death or foreclosure), and there must be a cropping history for the land. CRP contracts are generally 10 to 15 years in length, and there are two kinds of sign-ups: general and continuous.

“We put everything in CRP into a practice,” explained Rod Hamilton, farm program chief for Washington State FSA. “General sign-up practices are generally designed for big acreages, like whole fields. Continuous sign-up practices are very narrowly defined, such as riparian buffers, grass waterways, etc. Typically in Washington state, the average general sign-up practice might be 150 acres. Average continuous sign-up practice might be eight or 10 acres. Continuous sign-ups are almost always smaller, and they are very targeted to more environmentally sensitive areas and issues.”

General sign-ups are held no more than once a year (and may even skip years), while producers can enroll continuous acres at anytime. Producers can have both types of CRP on their farm at the same time, but as Hamilton said, “…a given acre is either in one or the other.” In the last few years, FSA has seen a record number of acres enrolled in the continuous sign-up.

The main reason for the dramatic decrease in accepted general acres in 2016 began back in the 2014 Farm Bill where Congress directed the FSA to lower the total number of CRP acres from 32 million to 24 million by fiscal year 2017. Keira Franz, the National Association of Wheat Growers’ (NAWG) environmental policy advisor, explained that at that time, wheat prices were significantly higher than today’s prices and enrollment in CRP was dropping as farmers put more land back into production. Funding for the farm bill’s overall conservation title was cut by almost $4 billion with CRP taking one of the biggest hits.

“That’s what we are running up against. FSA can’t have any more than 24 million acres enrolled in the program,” she said, adding that CRP is essentially a land retirement program competing for funds against working land programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. “There’s a debate over what type of program should the government fund. Should it provide assistance to growers who are producing a crop or not producing a crop?”

With the FY2017 deadline approaching and the number of continuously signed-up acres rising, there were concerns FSA wouldn’t be able to meet that deadline.

“I think as a consequence, even though we expected this to be a very competitive sign-up with a pretty low acceptance rate, in the end, the national office accepted even fewer offers than they may have anticipated because they saw so much acreage going out the door for continuous acres,” Hamilton said. “I honestly don’t think in the 30 years of CRP we’ve had anywhere even close to this low of an acceptance rate in general CRP.”

Acreage set aside for initiatives was another factor in the 2016 general sign-up. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created special programs that target specific issues and include specific practices, such as highly erodible land, pollinator habitat and wildlife enhancement. The shrub-steppe SAFE (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement) in Lincoln, Grant and Okanogan counties and the ferruginous hawk SAFE in Adams, Benton and Franklin counties are examples of initiatives that target the preservation of Eastern Washington’s shrub steppe habitat. Each initiative has a set amount of acreage allotted to it, and sign-ups are continuous. Those allotments, whether they have been used or not, are counted against CRP’s 24 million acre cap.

“In Washington (D.C.), when they are looking at all their acreage and staying under the 24 million acres, even though we haven’t enrolled every one of those initiative acres, they are assuming we are going to,” Hamilton said.

In order for land to be eligible to apply in a general CRP sign-up, it has to meet one of three criteria:

• It is expiring CRP;
• It is classified as highly erodible; or
• It is in a Conservation Priority Area (CPA).

Washington state’s CPA, which is based on air quality and keeping very fine, dusty soil on the ground, played a big role in what acres were or weren’t accepted this year. Originally, CPAs could include up to 33 percent of a state’s cropland, but the national FSA office cut that down to no more than 25 percent as a way to try to meet the 24 million acre CRP cap. That meant Washington had to cut its CPA from 2.65 million acres to 2.03 million acres, a reduction of approximately 620,000 acres. States were also hamstrung by FSA’s requirement that CPAs follow defined boundaries in their GIS system, namely watershed boundaries.

Washington’s CPA lies in much of the Columbia Basin where these soils, called PM10 soils, are found in high concentrations. Because the Basin is generally flat, much of it isn’t classified as highly erodible, so using an air quality CPA was a way FSA was able to enroll that land into CRP. According to Hamilton, as the state office started to consider how to shrink Washington’s CPA while following defined boundaries, it solicited input from stakeholder groups. The general advice was to keep the focus on improving air quality. Some of the places that FSA trimmed out of the CPA were watersheds that held mostly irrigated cropland; watersheds where most of the acreage qualified for a SAFE or one of the other initiatives; areas where the land was productive enough that general CRP enrollment was historically low; and areas where, if a dust event happened, it wouldn’t affect more densely populated areas.

“So if your land isn’t highly erodible but is inside that CPA line, you are eligible to make an offer,” Hamilton said, acknowledging this could mean bad news for dryland farmers in a mostly irrigated watershed. “If it is outside the line, you aren’t eligible to make an offer, and general CRP is not even an option for you. We tried to look at a variety of criteria to determine the most equitable way to reduce the acreage because, obviously, we knew whoever got cut out wasn’t going to be happy.”

For producers whose offers were rejected from CRP, there are a few options they might be able to consider. First, check with the county FSA office to find out if the acreage in question is within a SAFE area. Acres enrolled in a SAFE work the same as acres accepted through a general CRP sign-up in that whole fields can be enrolled, but they often require more elaborate ground cover.

Hamilton also mentioned the pollinator habitat initiative as an option (it is offered under continuous CRP), but warned that the seed mixes can be quite expensive and hard to grow, especially in a 12-inch rainfall zone. Continuous CRP is also an option, but doesn’t allow for whole fields.

“So much of the continuous CRP targets water, and if you don’t have any water to filter, your options are kind of limited,” Hamilton said. “Some of the options that in theory are on the table are really not a good plan for either the producer or the taxpayer. In a lot of cases, going back into production in some fashion is about the only viable option.”

With another farm bill and possibly more cuts to CRP on the horizon, Hamilton encouraged producers to contact their legislators and grower organizations to express any concerns or support for how the program is being implemented or might be modified in the future. Franz said NAWG supports both land retirement and working land programs.

“I think it needs to be a balance because NAWG policy does support both types of programs,” she said. “That’s something that we need to have more producer input on as we think about the next farm bill.”

A silver lining?

From the beginning, producers have used the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a way to retire, enrolling whole farms into the program rather than selling or leasing the land. Many of those producers have since died, and the nonfarming heirs are faced with a big decision: what to do with farmland that is no longer eligible for CRP?

Hamilton has a suggestion—take a look at the TIP program.

TIP, or Transition Incentives Program, offers two additional yearly CRP payments to landowners who sell or rent land to a beginning farmer or rancher or to some one who is a member of a socially disadvantaged group. New landowners or renters must return the land to production using sustainable grazing or farming methods. The biggest catch, however, is finding a beginning or social disadvantaged producer who fits FSA’s criteria. To help make things a little easier, Hamilton said county FSA offices will take down names of landowners who are looking for a renter or renters looking for land, and with their permission, make that information available.