We must expand – and reform – the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program

It’s good news the Inflation Reduction Act will invest $20 billion to reward farmers when they take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But none of the new funding provided by Congress will pay farmers to retire and restore marginal farmland through the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP.

There are 22 million acres of farmland now enrolled in the CRP, mostly through 10-year contracts. Between 2018 and 2021, the USDA paid these landowners – who must stop farming and instead grow grasses and trees – more than $7 billion in rental payments.

Once these contracts expire, farmers can plow up the grasses and trees, releasing back into the atmosphere whatever soil carbon that may have accumulated during the contract period. This squanders any emissions reductions that may have been achieved.

Since 2018, contracts from almost 14 million acres have expired, including almost 8 million acres that had been enrolled in CRP more than once.

If all this land is plowed for farming, more than 2 million tons of soil carbon could be released, EWG estimates. Fertilizing corn on these newly plowed lands could release more than 200 million kilograms of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Enrolling more land into long-term contracts through one of two other USDA programs would make much more sense.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, requires matching federal and state funds to secure long-term commitments – unlike the CRP’s commitments, which last just 10 to 15 years. The second option, CLEAR-30, is a new program that enrolls farmers through 30-year contracts but does not require state match.

But enrollment in those programs has dropped – the number of acres enrolled through CREP has fallen by 160,000 acres since 2018, and CLEAR-30 only became available nationally this year.  

Paying farmers to fallow productive farmland only temporarily – for 10 years, or even less, if farmers are allowed to break their contracts – makes little sense.

It is good news that short-term, “continuous enrollment” contract categories, which pay farmers to restore stream buffers and plant filter strips, increased from 22 percent, in 2012, to 54 percent, in 2022. But many of these practices get plowed under when the land re-enters production after 10 years and the benefits are lost.

Future investment in the CRP program should seize the opportunity to finally overhaul it, and stop squandering funding on efforts that ultimately don’t help to fight the climate crisis.

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