FSA examining CREP contracts Statewide audit reveals issue with more than 700 agreements

By Trista Crossley


Following a months-long audit, the Washington State Farm Service Agency (FSA) office has announced that more than 500 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) contracts in 21 counties may have been erroneously approved. Impacted producers were invited to join a call last month with FSA State Executive Director Jon Wyss to hear their options and ask questions. The call was followed up by a letter.

“I felt it important that you, as producers, didn’t get a ‘cold’ letter in the mail that says, ‘by the way, you have a contract with us, and it may be terminated,’” he said on the call. “I don’t think you should be surprised by a cold letter without being able to talk, to ask questions, and know what’s coming.”

The statewide audit, which was initiated after a similar audit in Whatcom County last year, flagged 730 CREP contracts for review. While some contracts were found to be valid, 80 of them are being referred back to the county committee for outright termination because they are noncompliant with FSA and are ineligible for the CREP program, and 472 contracts are being reviewed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for compliance and will likely be revised. Producers whose contracts are found to have an issue will have three options:

  • They can voluntarily terminate their CREP contract without penalty and go back to using their land as they see fit. 
  • They can terminate their contract without penalty and bid into another program, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or the Highly Erodible Land Initiative, without penalty.
  • They can accept the contract modifications and remain in their current CREP contract.

In all cases, even in the 80 instances where the contracts are being terminated, producers will still receive their October 2024 payment.

Many of the problems date back to 2002 and include contracts approved on ineligible streams or ditches, ground located in other states, and buffer widths that exceed the maximum 180 feet allowed by FSA. In some cases, buffers can be wider than 180 feet, but those have to be justified and documented by NRCS as addressing a resource concern.

“CREP is a magnificent program. CREP is a program that FSA wants to keep and wants to keep people in,” Wyss said. “It’s a struggle when a line on a map is the driver for 80 contracts that have to be terminated.”

Wyss explained that the program is functioning correctly; most of the errors seem to have occurred because of missing documents and the use of incorrect maps. Multiple agencies are involved with CREP contracts, but at the end of the day, FSA is responsible for verifying that the contract meets the criteria.

“We approve the contract and go forward. In that final audit, after it goes through its full process through the agencies, FSA is supposed to dot the ‘i’ and cross the ‘t,’ and we missed dotting the ‘i’ and crossing the ‘t,’” he said. “The handshake was made, and I’m the one that’s coming in and saying although we shook your hand, I have to notify you that you are under review. It’s a hard pill to swallow. For me, I feel bad. I feel guilty because these producers relied upon us, and we made an error. I’m the one that has to look them all in the eye and announce this error, and it’s painful, because it is such a magnificent program.”

In order to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made again, state FSA, NRCS, and Washington State Conservation Commission staff recently participated in a three-day training session on CREP. The state FSA is also rewriting the current state amendment so it is in compliance with national policy. During this process, Wyss said they’ve discovered some additional practices that could expand CREP opportunities and help fix other problems, such as the CRP cap in Douglas County. Wyss is confident that CREP will come out of this as a better program, although he acknowledges that producer skepticism is running high right now.

Of the 472 contracts that are being reviewed, 114 of them are in Whitman County, 85 in Walla Walla County, 64 in Columbia County, and 37 in Garfield County. Producers who received the notification letter should contact their county office for more information and further instructions. Those producers whose contracts are being revised will need to make a decision on what they are going to do by May 31.

When the errors were discovered, Wyss was adamant that producers wouldn’t be required to pay any money back. He went all the way to the top, getting approval from senior U.S. Department of Agriculture officials.

“Our rules require that we are supposed to collect money back from erroneous contracts,” he said. “No way I was going to look you in the eye and ask for money back. We enrolled you in a program, and, by the way, it was erroneous, and we need money back.”

Wyss tried to find flexibility on which maps were used to determine eligibility or to allow the contracts on ineligible streams to go to completion, but those requests were denied. The official stream eligibility map is located at scc.wa.gov/programs/conservation-reserve-enhancement-program-crep under the program factsheet tab.

“We will come out of this better and have more opportunities, but unfortunately, for opportunities to come, pain is going to be here for awhile,” he told producers.