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Harvest goes on even when disaster rages across Lake Roosevelt on the Colville Reservation. This was taken in 2019 with S.P. Jensen harvesting.
Photo by Daleen Jensen

WestBred

POLICY

FSA opens CRP general signup

Rule changes mean lower rental rates, no sighup for Douglas County

January 2020
By Trista Crossley


After several years of one-year extensions and months of anticipation, the first Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up under the 2018 Farm Bill—and the first general sign-up since 2015—has finally arrived.

According to Farm Service Agency (FSA) records, there are nearly 190,000 acres expiring in Washington in 2019, with another 195,000 expiring next year. Rod Hamilton, farm programs chief for the Farm Service Agency’s Washington state office, said this is expected to be one of the bigger sign-ups in state history.

The general sign-up began Dec. 9, 2019, and will run through Feb. 28, 2020. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, the acreage cap was raised from 24 million acres to 27 million acres. For most Eastern Washington farmers, the most significant change they will see in this general sign-up is a reduction in rental rates, Hamilton said. To help pay for the increased acreage cap without negatively impacting other conservation programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reduced rental rates to 85 percent of a county’s average rate for the general sign-up. Rates for continuous sign-up were reduced to 90 percent of the county’s average. How much of an impact those reduced rental rates will have on Eastern Washington farmers remains to be seen, as Hamilton said they’ll have to wait until the offers are processed.

“The other thing that folks would be interested in is SAFE (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement) acres used to be under continuous sign-up, so if they were in a SAFE area, their land was (automatically) eligible. But now, they will have to meet normal general CRP sign-up requirements and compete just like everybody else,” he said.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, many SAFE acres are no longer exempt from counting towards a county’s CRP acreage limit, which is 25 percent of a county’s total cropland that is eligible for CRP. In Douglas County, which has slightly more than 187,500 acres in CRP, 63,000 acres of which are in SAFE, their county acreage cap is 143,700 acres, meaning they are roughly 43,800 acres over their cap. According to Hamilton, that means farmers in Douglas County will not be able to participate in this general sign-up. To change how SAFE acres are classified would require Congressional action, and he said that there are folks in Congress who are looking at this.

Michel Ruud, FSA’s Douglas County executive director, said they’ve made the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) aware of the situation. She added that NRCS is equally concerned and is exploring options that might temporarily help producers with expiring contracts. Under current rules, Douglas County won’t have a CRP general sign-up until 2022.

While there are other counties throughout the U.S. with the same problem, Douglas County is the only county in Washington state in this predicament. There seems to be a broader trend within this farm bill’s CRP rules to move more towards water quality initiatives, something that is seen in a new initiative, the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative. That move is not necessarily in the best interests of parts of Eastern Washington.

“Congress clearly said water quality is an emphasis (in this farm bill). If you are going to have water quality issues, then you have to have water,” Hamilton said. “Water is more abundant back east than here in the West. Although we clearly have water quality issues, we also have land miles from any water source.”

For the most part, Hamilton said CLEAR is in some degree a new name for water quality practices they’ve had in the past. One of the big differences is that expiring contracts that are eligible for CLEAR will have the opportunity to re-enroll under a 30-year contract.

“I think we will see, when the handbook comes out, that a riparian buffer is still a riparian buffer, but now it will be considered a CLEAR practice,” he explained, adding that the rules are still being ironed out.

Another thing that could impact some wheat growers are changes to the haying and grazing provisions in CRP. Hamilton said while the rules for haying and grazing are “convoluted,” there may be more opportunities for grazing CRP as a midcontract management practice with no payment penalty. Under previous rules, if a producer used grazing as a midcontract management practice to help stimulate the plant stand, there was a 25 percent loss of income (except under certain emergency conditions).

“The question becomes, how often will we let people do midcontract management?” Hamilton said. “One of the challenges with the new grazing opportunities provision says whatever we allow, we can’t allow grazing that will cause long-term damage to the stand.” FSA will be working with producers and NRCS to figure out how much grazing will be allowed.

Hamilton said no changes were made to the state’s conservation priority areas (CPA), but he is hopeful that there will be a potential opportunity for revision in 2020 for 2021. In order for land to be eligible for a CRP general sign-up, it either has to be in a CPA, have a calculated erodibility index of 8 or higher or be in a CRP contract expiring that year. In 2015, in order to meet federal acreage cap requirements, Washington state had to trim the amount of cropland that was in CPAs by more than 600,000 acres, leaving some farmers with less opportunity to enroll during a general sign-up.

Some of the other changes to CRP, as outlined in FSA’s press release, include:

Grasslands Sign-ups. CRP Grasslands sign-up helps landowners and operators protect grassland, including rangeland, and pastureland and certain other lands while maintaining the areas as grazing lands. A separate CRP Grasslands sign-up will be offered each year following the general sign-up. The sign-up period for CRP Grasslands in 2020 runs from March 16, 2020, to May 15, 2020.

Land Transition. The CRP Transition Incentives Program (TIP) is an option for producers interested in transitioning land to a beginning farmer or rancher or a member of a socially disadvantaged group to return land to production for sustainable grazing or crop production. CRP contract holders no longer need to be a retired or retiring owner or operator to transition their land. TIP participants may have a lease less than five years with an option to purchase, and they have two years before the end of the CRP contract to make conservation and land improvements.

Previously Expired Land. Land enrolled in CRP under a 15-year contract that expired in September 2017, 2018 or 2019, may be eligible for enrollment if there was no opportunity for re-enrollment and the practice under the expired contract has been maintained.

Despite such a large number of acres expiring, Hamilton said he wasn’t concerned about hitting the CRP cap, because everything that is expiring is already under the cap. Currently, in the U.S., there are approximately 22.3 million acres in CRP, and the cap for the 2020 sign-up is 24.5 million acres (each year of the 2018 Farm Bill, the cap will increase incrementally until it hits the overall cap of 27 million acres).

Hamilton urged farmers who are interested in submitting a CRP application to contact their local FSA office sooner, rather than later. He expects local offices to be extremely busy with a number of other deadlines during the first few months of the year, including acreage reporting and Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage program sign-ups.