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Vilsack announces CRP payments, discusses ongoing demand for more acres 148606Vilsack announces CRP payments, discusses ongoing demand for more acres

In a Q&A with Nebraska Farmer, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack discusses CRP's economic and environmental benefits, and its challenges in meeting demand for acres.

October 28, 2016

7 Min Read

Today, USDA announced it will issue nearly $1.7 billion in payments to over half a million landowners who have contracts enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

More than 1.3 million acres were newly enrolled in CRP in fiscal year 2016 using the continuous enrollment authority — double the pace of the previous year. In fiscal year 2016, USDA's Farm Service Agency also accepted 411,000 acres through its general enrollment authority, plus 101,000 acres in the new CRP-Grasslands program, which balances conservation with working lands.


The total number of CRP acres in the U.S. comes out to just under 24 million acres — the cap established in the 2014 Farm Bill, and a decline from the previous cap of 32 million acres. Today, USDA also announced the start of sign-up for the Agriculture Risk Coverage Program (ARC) program and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack recently spoke with Nebraska Farmer about the CRP program and the ongoing demand among landowners for CRP acres.

NF: This year, Nebraska will receive over $62 million total for the over 780,000 acres enrolled in the CRP program. We know CRP is an important economic tool for farmers, especially when commodity prices are low. What is the overall economic impact of the CRP program across the U.S.?

Vilsack: The amount of payments that will be made this fall is $1.7 billion, impacting over 366,000 farms nationwide with roughly 764,000 individual contracts. That covers just a little bit less than 24 million acres of land. We're capped by Congress at 24 million acres, and we have pretty much all of that committed.


In Nebraska, we'll be making a small amount of payments on PLC; it's almost $30 million in PLC payments. But the big payment to Nebraska is the $614.5 million in ARC payments.

Our hope is these programs provide some bridge to more prosperous opportunities for farmers. We anticipate this month about $7 billion in payments under ARC and PLC to go out to farmers. So farmers will receive the CRP payment and ARC-PLC payment, and between the two, almost $9 billion in payments being made.

At the same time, we're trying to expand and promote market opportunities. We received good news today that U.S. gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.9% in the third quarter, which was much higher than anyone anticipated. That annualized growth rate of 2.9% was driven in large part by an increase in agricultural exports. Nearly 1% of that 2.9% is probably attributed to ag exports alone. We saw a huge increase, particularly in soybean sales. This underscores the fact that we've had eight historically strong years in agricultural exports. We want to continue that. Hopefully, when Congress returns after the election, they are at least willing to provide a vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

NF: During your time as ag secretary, how has the CRP program changed? We've seen how, in recent years, there has been an increased focus on pollinator health. What drove the shift in goals to encompass more wildlife and pollinator-oriented habitats?

Vilsack: To be fair, the pollinator program is only about 100,000 acres. It's an important part, because nearly 30% of all agricultural products are impacted and affected by pollinators, and we've obviously seen a significant decline in pollinators, so it was important for us to look at potential habitat expansion.

One of the primary drivers of CRP has been congressional action in limiting the number of acres. We've gone from 32 million to 24 million, and that means we've got to put a premium on those acres that have the highest conservation benefit. So that's been one change. The second change has been the important role CRP plays in wildlife habitat, which obviously is important to a number of states, particularly in the Midwest, in terms of hunting opportunities, which is a driver for many communities, especially at this time of year. If the pheasant population is up, if the quail population is up, that means more people are traveling to these states to hunt. That brings tourism dollars in as well.

Obviously, CRP has been a driver of healthier soils, which over the long-haul will help us be more productive and maintain productivity, and it's also a strategy for cleaner water.

All of this is trying to balance within this confined amount that Congress has allowed. That's why I've suggested when we begin talking about the [2018] Farm Bill in 2017, we should not be talking about how much money we have to save, which is how we started the conversation several years ago [for the 2014 Farm Bill], but the need we have to meet. And then define the cost of meeting that need, and challenging all of us to be creative in terms of figuring out where the money's going to come from.

NF: A big focus of the current administration is climate change, and there is an ongoing emphasis on "climate smart agriculture" across the U.S. What role has the CRP program played, not only in mitigating the challenges producers face in a changing climate, but in mitigating climate change itself?

Vilsack: It's a huge part of our strategy to sequester and maintain sequestering of carbon, which allows the country as a whole to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which will mitigate the consequences of climate change and weather variability.

We've set up a series of climate hubs throughout the United States and every region of the United States to assess the impact and effect of climate change on agriculture and forestry. Each area of the country — for example, the Midwest Center is located in Ames, Iowa  has had an assessment done on the impact climate change could potentially have on crop production and on livestock.

What we know is we're going to see more intense weather patterns; we're going to see higher temperatures, we're going to see more intense storms; we're going to see longer droughts, more extensive flooding. And all of that requires strategies to mitigate and to adapt. One strategy is by making sure we adequately and appropriately use our CRP opportunity for sequestering carbon to try to make sure the temperature increases are minimized, because that will minimize the overall impact and effect of the changing climate.

NF: If we look at the 2014 Farm Bill as a snapshot in time, when commodity prices were higher, and there was less interest among landowners in CRP, Congress limited the maximum number of CRP acres to 24 million. What do you see as the future of the CRP program? Do you foresee more acres allowed with the next farm bill?

Vilsack: Whether or not acres will increase is somewhat dependent on whether or not Congress starts the conversation with the goal being to save money, or whether Congress starts the conversation with meeting the needs that are out there that we can document. If they start the conversation with 'we have to save money,' then I'm less optimistic that we'll see the kind of CRP program that people want. I think they should start the conversation with 'what is the need?' Then I think the chances of seeing enhanced CRP opportunities increase.

Secondly, I think it is important for us to balance the need for competitive rental rates. So that in cases and circumstances where crop prices are high, that we still continue to have interest in the program. At the same time, we want to make sure we don't necessarily limit, by a significant amount, the number of acres that young and beginning farmers have access to. As I've held town hall meetings and roundtables, particularly in the Midwest, I've heard concerns expressed by beginning and young farmers that they are having a hard time accessing land. They are indicating CRP is one of the reasons rental rates were very competitive and people were making the decision to put land in CRP. So it's a delicate balance, but I think we have to have greater flexibility, which means, in my view, we have to consider having more acres in the program, and we need to make sure that Congress understands the importance of this program as it considers the next farm bill.

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