USDA will begin a general sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program on Aug. 30 and will begin offering early re-enrollments and extensions for CRP contracts that begin expiring in 2007.

The announcement comes only weeks after USDA officials indicated they would not offer a summer signup for the CRP because of the potential impact on commodity prices that were significantly higher at the time. Since then, corn and soybean prices have fallen from $1 to $3 per bushel.

“We are dedicated to full enrollment of the Conservation Reserve Program by offering early re-enrollments and contract extensions,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. “This program builds on the conservation ethic of farmers and ranchers to protect and improve natural resources and enhance wildlife habitat.”

Veneman also announced two new initiatives that will create 250,000 acres of habitat for the northern bobwhite quail, a native quail species that has historically ranged in 35 states and 250,000 acres of wetlands and playa lakes in non-floodplain areas, which is vital habitat for species such as upland ducks, pheasants and sandhill cranes.

“These initiatives will help achieve our goal of restoring, enhancing and protecting at least 3 million wetland acres over the next five years in order to increase overall wetland acres and quality,” Veneman said.

In three years, 16 million acres under CRP contract will expire, she said. Another 6 million acres will follow in 2008, 4 million in 2009 and 2 million in 2010. Offering early re-enrollment and extensions of existing contracts to current CRP participants underscores a commitment to full enrollment of CRP up to 39.2 million acres.

The secretary also announced that a request for public comment on various aspects of CRP will be published in the Federal Register. Among other issues, USDA is seeking public comment on the following:

  • How to manage the large acreage set to expire from CRP.

  • How to manage future CRP sign-ups and acreage.

  • How to evaluate the program's environmental effectiveness.

  • How to better utilize information technology such as Geographic Information Systems that evaluate acreage for enrollment.

  • How to improve CRP, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, through partnerships that better address local environmental issues.

The CRP Northern Bobwhite Quail Habitat Initiative introduces a conservation practice intended to create 250,000 acres of early successional grass buffers along agricultural field borders. USDA estimates this nesting and brood-rearing cover will increase bobwhite quail numbers by 750,000 birds annually.

Planted buffers will also benefit reptiles, amphibians, aquatic species and upland birds, many of which are being considered for listing as endangered species. In addition, the initiative will reduce soil erosion and protect water quality by trapping field sediments and nutrients.

USDA estimates the program will provide $125 million in payments to participants through 2007 when the overall statutory enrollment limit is expected to be reached. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 32 state fish and wildlife agencies are expected to offer technical, monitoring and evaluation assistance. Quail Unlimited, the Southeast Quail Study Group, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other conservation groups, as well as local conservation districts, may provide outreach, technical expertise and other assistance.

Because the initiative is limited to 250,000 acres, enrollment is targeted to the Midwest and Southeast that have the greatest potential to restore bobwhite quail habitat.

USDA also announced another new program that will allow landowners to enroll large wetland complexes and playa lakes located outside the 100-year floodplain. Restoring these systems will provide vital habitat for many wildlife species, such as upland ducks and sandhill cranes. Wetlands also filter runoff, recharge groundwater supplies, protect drinking water and reduce downstream flooding.

The announcements will further the large-scale accomplishments of CRP, which has already restored 1.8 million wetland and wetland buffer acres nationwide. “In fact, this past year for the first time in recent history agriculture had a net gain in wetland acres compared with the previous year,” said Veneman. “From 1997-2002, farmers and ranchers produced a net increase of 131,400 acres of wetlands.”

CRP currently offers wetlands restoration incentives that target for enrollment 500,000 acres located in the 100-year floodplain; and the Farmable Wetlands Program, which protects up to 1 million acres of farmed and previously converted wetlands of less than 40 acres per tract. USDA also offers the Wetlands Reserve Program, which targets enrollment of 2.3 million acres of larger wetland complexes and those with the most critical environmental needs under permanent easements, 30-year easements and restoration cost-share agreements. In June, USDA announced the new Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program that works with partners to leverage resources in order to further wetlands protections within the requirements of the WRP.

USDA estimates the total cost of the wetlands restoration initiative to be $200 million. FSA will offer participants an incentive payment equal to 25 percent of the cost of restoring the hydrology of the site, an annual rental payment and cost-share assistance of up to 50 percent of eligible practice installation costs.

Program sign-up for both these new initiatives will begin Oct. 1, 2004 at local FSA offices and will run on a continuous basis until the total acreage has been enrolled or Dec. 31, 2007, whichever comes first. To determine individual eligibility for the initiative, landowners should check with their local FSA office. More information on these initiatives, including acreage allocation by state, is available at local FSA offices and on FSA's Web site at: www.fsa.usda.gov.

General sign-up for CRP will begin Aug. 30 and run through Sept. 24, 2004. CRP is the country's largest conservation program on private lands with a current enrollment of 34.8 million acres.

“CRP protects fragile cropland from erosion and improves the nation's natural resources,” said Veneman. “By reducing water runoff and sedimentation, the program safeguards surface water and helps improve the condition of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams, many of which are used for drinking water supplies.”

Acreage enrolled in CRP is devoted to resource-conserving vegetative covers, making the program a major contributor to more abundant wildlife populations in many parts of the country.

CRP participants voluntarily remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production by entering into long-term contracts for 10 to 15 years. In exchange, participants receive annual rental payments and a payment of up to 50 percent of the cost of establishing conservation practices.

The 2002 farm bill authorized CRP enrollment up to 39.2 million acres. Since there is limited acreage available for enrollment, landowners are encouraged to work with their local USDA Farm Service Agency offices to maximize the environmental benefits of their CRP offers. During the last CRP general sign-up, held from May 5 to June 13, 2003, enrollment offers were highly competitive. Of the 4 million acres offered, USDA selected 2 million acres that offered the greatest environmental benefits.

USDA will use the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) to rank the acreage offered. The EBI is based on costs and five other factors: soil erosion, water quality, enduring benefits, air quality and wildlife enhancement.

Offers accepted under this sign-up will become effective Oct. 1, 2005, or Oct. 1, 2006, at the producer's discretion. More detailed information on CRP and the general sign-up is available at local FSA offices and on FSA's Web site at: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/cepd/crpinfo.htm.

The Federal Register notice seeking public comment on CRP is available on FSA's Web site at http://www.fsa.usda.gov and also will be available soon at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/index.html. Comments on the issues must be received in writing by 120 days after the date published in the Federal Register. Comments may be submitted in writing or electronically via the means provided in the notice.

Further information on the Federal Register notice is available from Beverly Preston, CRP Program Manager, at USDA/FSA/CEPD/STOP 0513, 1400 Independence Avenue SW., Washington, D.C. 20250-0513; telephone 202-720-9563; email: beverly_preston@wdc.usda.gov.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com