It’s time to reform the Conservation Reserve Program – but not for the reason you might think

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was right to reject efforts this week to allow farmers to plow up lands enrolled in the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, to grow more wheat.

Although Russia’s war in Ukraine is impacting food prices in the U.S., plowing up land enrolled in CRP, which pays farmers to grow grass and trees via 10-year contracts, would have no impact on the price of wheat or other commodities. The number of acres of productive farmland enrolled in the CRP has reached the lowest level in decades, so allowing farmers to break their contracts - as some have proposed - would actually free up very few acres for food production.

To address food price inflation, the USDA should instead increase food assistance program spending.

CRP should be reformed, however, to reduce future enrollment of productive farmland and focus future enrollment of unproductive land. CRP continues to enroll too many acres of productive land through short-term contracts. Paying farmers to temporarily fallow productive farmland for 10 years (or less if farmers are allowed to break their contracts) makes little sense. As EWG has previously documented, once these short-term contracts expire, farmland is often plowed up and the conservation benefits are lost, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.

There is also too little land enrolled in long-term contracts that benefit the climate and water quality. Congress and the USDA have not yet done enough to enroll farmers into the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, and other CRP options that restore marginal lands, like river corridors, for 30 years.

The share of acres enrolled through “continuous enrollment,” which pays farmers to restore stream buffers and plant filter strips, increased from 22 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2022. Yet the number of acres enrolled in long-term contracts through CREP, which requires a state match, has fallen from 1.3 million acres in 2012 to less than 800,000 acres in 2022.

Vilsack sought to address this challenge this week by urging farmers to enroll their lands into a similar program called CLEAR30, which also funds long-term contracts but does not require a state match. He also provided a significant incentive - farmers will receive 27.5 percent more than the “rental rate” typically paid to enroll in the CRP, and an additional water quality incentive payment.

At a time when crop prices are high, it remains to be seen whether these contract sweeteners are strong enough to persuade farmers to restore marginal lands to help the climate and improve water quality. What is clear is that enrolling farmers in short-term term contracts - only to lose those benefits when the land returns to production - makes no sense for either farmers or for the environment.

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