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USDA absorbs fragile cropland

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced on Monday that the USDA will accept 1.188 million acres of the nation’s most environmentally sensitive land into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the nation’s premier program for protecting fragile natural resources and enhancing the environment. The 2002 Farm Bill authorized CRP enrollment up to 39.2 million acres.

“President Bush is committed to conservation programs that provide incentives for farmers and ranchers to strengthen environmental stewardship of their lands," said Veneman. "This program gives producers additional resources to reduce topsoil erosion, increase wildlife habitat and improve air and water quality on these lands."

In August, President Bush announced several initiatives to help achieve full enrollment of the Conservation Reserve Program. Among them were the Bobwhite Quail Habitat Initiative, an expanded Wetland Restoration Initiative, a Federal Register Notice seeking public comment on CRP implementation and a general CRP sign-up, running from Aug. 30, 2004, through Sept. 24, 2004. The Federal Register Notice has been published and sign-up started on Oct. 1, 2004, for both the Bobwhite Quail Initiative and the Wetlands Restoration Initiative.

First established by Congress in 1985, the CRP allows eligible farmers and ranchers to voluntarily establish long-term conservation practices on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive cropland. In exchange, they receive 10 to 15 years of annual rental payments and cost-share assistance for maintaining those practices.

For this, the 29th sign-up, USDA selected 1.188 million acres of the available 1.672 million acres, ranking it as one of the highest acceptance rates in the history of CRP, as 76 percent of the bids offered were accepted. These are the most fragile of the cropland acres offered considering the environmental benefits of the CRP.

In the CRP selection process, Veneman said the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), which ranks CRP offers based on five environmental factors as well as a cost factor, has been updated to reflect the addition of carbon sequestration. The environmental factors are: 1) soil erosion; 2) water quality; 3) enduring benefits; 4) air quality; and 5) wildlife enhancement.

All offers were ranked on the same basis and offers with an EBI score of at least 248 were considered acceptable for enrollment. The average environmental benefits score of this sign-up totals 287.

The average rental rate per acre was $50.24 providing annual rental payments of approximately $60 million to farmers for the 1.188 million acres. This additional acreage raises the total acreage in the CRP to 35.6 million acres.

USDA received just over 26,000 offers for enrollment during the Aug. 30 to Sept. 24, 2004 sign-up time frame and accepted 19,732. Offers accepted under this sign-up may become effective either on Oct. 1, 2005, or in the following year on Oct. 1, 2006, whichever the producer chooses.

The 2002 Farm Bill authorized USDA to expand the CRP enrollment up to 39.2 million acres from the previous cap of 36.4 million acres. Of the total amount available, about 3.0 million acres are reserved for special initiatives within CRP, including: · A continuous sign-up program, which provides an effective, ongoing means to protect the most environmentally sensitive land;

· Planting flood plains to bottomland hardwood trees to help sequester greenhouse gases, improve water quality and restore wildlife habitat;

· The Bobwhite Quail Initiative that allows for enrollment of field borders to provide valuable habitat for quail and other upland birds;

· The Wetlands Initiative that allows enrollment of larger wetland complexes and playa lakes beyond the 100 year floodplain;

· The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which is a federal-state partnership to target additional resources in defined geographic areas for conservation practices such as buffer and filter strips; and

· The Farmable Wetland Program to protect certain farmed and prior converted wetlands.

“These special initiatives are particularly helpful in targeting the program to the most pressing environmental needs,” Veneman said. “The CREP also is a great example of federal-state partnerships whereby our combined resources can help improve water quality and provide other amenities for both rural and urban people.”

More detailed information on the 29th general sign-up and on the CRP is available on FSA’s Web site at:

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