As Open Enrollment Kicks Off, We Take a Look at the Basics of the Conservation Reserve Program
At first glance, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) can seem pretty complex.
Conservation jargon can quickly get confusing, and wading through the sea of acronyms and initiatives to decipher just what CRP has to offer can result in some head-scratching for the uninitiated.
So, as the general signup enrollment kicks off for 2023, let’s break down the basics of CRP.
What is CRP?
CRP is a land conservation program run by the Farm Service Agency. Through the program, farmers and recreational land owners remove a portion of their land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health, in exchange for a yearly rental payment. The cropland is generally converted to some type of grassland or mixed prairie habitat, but can also become wetlands, tree cover or other beneficial habitat.
There are numerous programs within the umbrella of CRP that focus on specific types of habitat, including
- Filter strips (Grass plantings located along water sources).
- Hardwood and softwood tree plantings
- Riparian forest buffer (Tree plantings along streams)
- Pollinator habitat
Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are from 10 to 15 years in length, depending on the specific program.
CRP protects more than 20 million of acres of American topsoil from erosion and helps safeguard the nation’s natural resources. By reducing water runoff and sedimentation, CRP protects groundwater; helps improve the condition of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams — and is a major contributor to increased wildlife habitat and populations across the country.
General vs. Continuous sign-up
There are two ways of enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Program. The first is what’s known as the “General sign-up.” General signup is open for a specific period during a given year and typically lasts around five weeks. All CRP programs are open during general sign-up, but there is also a yearly cap on the amount of funding available. During general sign-up, interested landowners submit a bid for their proposed project and those bids are ranked based on how environmentally beneficial they are. This ranking system is known as an Environmental Benefit Index (EBI). Bids are scored against one another to determine enrollment — the higher your EBI score, the better.
Continuous signup is just what it sounds like — year-round enrollment. The obvious advantage to continuous sign up is anyone whose land is eligible can enroll at any time, but the downside of this route is not all CRP practices are available during continuous sign-up. The practices are also restricted by geographic location, so not all areas of the country are open. Eligible practices vary depending on your location, but some common examples are filter strip programs, wetland restoration and the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative, which is a conservation program focusing on wildlife of high priority identified by individual states.
Both general and continuous CRP sign-ups have a cap on the total acres that can be enrolled. This year, there is a 27-million-acre nationwide cap, with 23 million acres already enrolled in CRP through previous contracts — leaving 4 million available acres.
How to Qualify
Specific qualification varies depending on what program someone is interested in, but generally speaking land must possess the following qualifications. You must have owned the property for at least 12 months prior to enrolling and the portion of the property that’ll be enrolled in CRP must have been used for agricultural production for at least four of the last six years, (you can’t just enroll your backyard in CRP).
Property that is under an existing CRP contract is generally eligible for renewal, though exceptions do exist.
There are several common misconceptions about CRP that could deter a landowner from enrolling. One of the most prevalent is properties enrolled in CRP must be opened to public access. In reality, there are no CRP programs that require public access. Some states do have tailored access programs – such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in South Dakota – which does open private lands to public outdoor recreation.
CRP is also often seen as a resource for large properties only — landowners who want to enroll 100+ acres. But there are very few limitations on the size of property that can be enrolled. In fact, some of the most productive wildlife habitat comes in small packages. A shelter belt, field corner or filter strip can help produce upland birds, deer, turkeys, pollinators and so much more, and that kind of habitat can be successfully implemented on just a few acres.
When someone says “CRP,” most people immediately picture grasslands and other prairie habitat. While this is a major component of the program, CRP offers countless programs to improve other kinds of wildlife habitat that can be catered to benefit deer, turkeys, or pollinators in particular.
The current CRP general sign-up runs from Feb. 27-April 7, 2023. Landowners should visit their nearest USDA Service Center to learn more about general CRP eligibility.