By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The Farm Service Agency has accepted enrollment of more than 800,000 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the program's latest signup period.
The CRP pays farmers to idle marginally productive land to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, strengthen wildlife habitat, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and provide resiliency in the case of future weather changes.
In announcing the enrollment, USDA stated this year's signup was one of the most selective in the program's history with a high standard set for the Environmental Benefits Index and the lowest percentage of applications accepted. USDA noted that the 2014 farm bill capped the total number of acres that may be enrolled in the CRP at 24 million for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
The Farm Service Agency, which administers the program, did not release any state-by-state data. An FSA spokesman said farmers and landowners have not yet been notified whether or not their offers were accepted, but will be notified by state and county FSA officials as soon as specific details are finalized.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that the payments will help farmers offset the costs of restoring, enhancing and protecting certain grasses, shrubs and trees.
"The Conservation Reserve Program provides nearly $2 billion annually to land owners -- dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs. When these direct benefits are taken together with the resulting economic activity, the benefits related to CRP are estimated at $3.1 billion annually," said Vilsack.
"Over the past 30 years, CRP has created major environmental improvements throughout the countryside," he said.
"The program has removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equal to removing 9 million cars from the road annually, and prevented 600 million dump trucks of soil from erosion. With today's announcement, USDA is continuing these achievements by maximizing conservation benefits within the limitations provided by law."
As of March this year, 23.8 million acres were enrolled in CRP, with 1.7 million acres set to expire this fall.
Reflecting that demand to enroll in CRP remains high, landowners submitted requests to enroll more than 3 million acres for this year in three different categories of CRP, including 26,000 offers on more than 1.8 million acres under the general signup.
Landowners also are taking advantage of the continuous enrollment program. More than 364,000 acres already have been accepted for 2016 in the CRP continuous enrollment, triple the pace of last year, USDA said.
FSA will accept 411,000 acres in general enrollment, the most competitive selection in the history of the program, with the acreage providing record-high conservation benefits. USDA selected offers by weighing environmental factors plus cost, including wildlife enhancement, water quality, soil erosion, enduring benefits and air quality.
In the first-ever enrollment period for CRP Grasslands, FSA will also accept 101,000 acres in the program, providing participants with financial assistance for establishing approved grasses, trees and shrubs on pasture and rangeland that can continue to be grazed.
More than 70% of these CRP Grasslands acres are considered diverse native grasslands under threat of conversion, and more than 97% of the acres have a new, veteran or underserved farmer or rancher as a primary producer. FSA continues to accept CRP Grasslands offers and will conduct another ranking period later this year. Acres are ranked according to current and future use, new and underserved producer involvement, maximum grassland preservation, vegetative cover, pollinator habitat and various other environmental factors.
FSA contracts have a duration between 10 and 15 years.
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