The New Farm Bill & CRP

By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University,

prairie grassPrepared September 2008.

This past May, the Untied States Congress passed new Farm Bill legislation. This bill reauthorized many popular conservation programs including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) and the Conservation Stewardship (Conservations Security) Program (CSP), in addition to other related programs and initiatives critical to rural bio-energy and value-added agricultural development.

This is good news for all agriculturalists and residents of farm states concerned for the future of these programs, but program status and implementation are the focus of ongoing concern and debate. At a time when Americans are seeing record-high commodity prices, low grain reserves, ever-increasing land values, rental rates and the relentless urbanization of farmland, millions of acres slated to leave CRP or being modified into another use category suggests an uncertain future for impacted interest groups and policies. These include soil, water and wildlife management; game-based agritourism, the development of multi- and limited-use conservation systems that combine some agricultural production with habitat conservation and environmental diversification, to name but a few.

In the hope of addressing escalating feed and forage costs for ranchers, price effects that eventually impact consumers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced opening more than 24-million CRP acres to haying and grazing through November 10, 2008. This decision has met with criticism from some conservation and environmental groups. Most farm- and livestock-advocacy groups see limited haying and grazing of CRP and Grasslands Reserve land as something that is long overdue.

Research by several Midwestern universities also has suggested that controlled haying and grazing may be useful and productive tools for landowners to perform contractually required mid-contract management, ones that improve habitat diversity and stimulate the vigor of well-established and aging grass stands. It should be noted that USDA is not allowing haying and grazing on the most sensitive erosion-prone acres. A thoughtful consideration regarding this debate is to remember that CRP “set-aside” acres are not really “set aside” but are “working lands” because they create wildlife reservoirs, clean water, build healthy soil, prevent soil erosion and sequester carbon in potentially harvestable biomass. 

To complicate matters, the impact of severe flooding in most agricultural states has raised other questions and concerns regarding reserve-status modification, as well as underscored the importance of CRP, WRP and GRP buffer strips and flood-plain wetlands. This fall, one concern of wildlife conservation groups is that with modification of set-aside acre use policies, there may be less acres available to hunters, and this could decrease the amount of tax dollars generated for the Federal Pittman-Robertson Program and state conservations initiatives funded by license and stamp fees and outdoor-gear taxes. This situation could be exacerbated in many plains states due to severely reduced populations of upland game birds that resulted from the cold wet spring and flooded nesting habitat.

A positive development for all concerned is that USDA recently began the process of updating soil rental rates, which should help to preserve CRP and its fellow programs, making them competitive with increasing land rents and crop prices. For more information on this issue:

Some noted changes in the programs:

  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): 32-million acres nationwide down from 39.2-million acres. This lower level does not apply until 2010. CRP and Continuous Conservation Reserve (CCRP) continue to be funded but based on more current rental data and more encouraging enrollment incentives.
  • Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP): Acreage was raised to roughly 3-million acres. New enhancements similar to those in CRP were authorized.
  • Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP): Very similarly structured to WRP, GRP changes included additional authorization for 1.22-million acres from 2009 to 2012 using 10-, 15-, and 20-year contracts and easements.
  • Open Fields: An incentive program to open private land to non-landowning hunters, fishermen and nature enthusiasts. Hunters and fishermen contribute substantial tax dollars through license and equipment purchases that return to the states through the Pittman-Robertson tax system. Over time, It is anticipated that this program will pay for itself through increased outdoor sporting activity revenue.
  • Sodsaver: A prairie states program that encourages native grassland conservation and wetland conservation.  Established native sod tilled for an agricultural crop, e.g., wheat or corn for biofuel ethanol, will not be eligible for federal disaster or crop insurance payments.
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentives (WHIP): Another stewardship, habitat and diversity improvement program for agricultural and non-industrial forest lands and pivot corners. Funded at $85 million for 2009-2012, payments are capped at $50,000 per year.
  • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP): 12.8-million acres per year from 2009-2017. Landowners must address a stewardship issue of concern and meet or exceed specific goals. Contracts are limited to $200,000 over a five-year term. This program is especially suited to “working” lands where stewardship, habitat and diversity improvement are incorporated into agricultural systems.


Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Farm Service Agency, USDA.

Conservation Reserve Program, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA.

Conservation Reserve Program: Status and Current Issues, August 2008 Report to Congress, National Agricultural Law Center.

Ducks Unlimited CRP/Farm Bill Position Paper

Pheasants Forever CRP/Farm Bill Position Paper