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USDA expanding program to set aside farm and ranch land for conservation

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

The Biden administration is reversing Trump administration cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Payments to farmers to set aside land were reduced by the previous former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. With lower payments, some farmers left the program and plowed under land that was once set aside for conservation.

“The payments are intended to offset the losses that a farmer would incur if they take that land out of active production and USDA prioritizes those lands that are most sensitive and most important to conserve,” said Eric Deeble, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The Conservation Reserve program pays to protect areas such as grass buffers along streams and lakes to reduce soil erosion and fertilizer runoff.

The payments "promote the reservation of land that is really important to preserve water quality, provide animal habitat and provide a variety of additional environmental benefits,” Deeble explained.

Current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that higher payments, new incentives for longer periods of conservation reserve and efforts to mitigate climate change were being implemented.

“We need to invest in CRP and let it do what it does best: preserve topsoil, sequester carbon, and reduce the impacts of climate change,” Vilsack said.

With higher payments, the USDA is hoping to enroll four million acres more in the program.

That would increase the amount of land in the program to about 25 million acres. The farm bill approved in 2018 allows up to 27 million acres.

Under the Trump administration, enrollment dropped to less than 21 million acres. However, when Vilsack was Ag Secretary under Obama, the program started with 33 million acres (allowed under the previous farm bill) and dropped to about 23 million acres in the eight years he oversaw the USDA. Part of the reduction was due to farmers putting land back into production because of higher crop prices and partly because of the new limits on CRP enrollment in the 2018 farm bill.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.