Federal officials accepted 76,575 acres of Nebraska land into the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of crop production to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and strengthen wildlife habitat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday announced plans to enroll 800,000 acres nationally into its CRP programs. Nebraska had the third most acres accepted behind Iowa, which got 128,212 acres, and Washington at 120,530 acres.
The U.S. has about 23.4 million acres in CRP, a voluntary program that pays landowners annual rent over 10 to 15 years and includes cost-share assistance to plant grasses, shrubs and trees in fields and along streams or rivers. About 1.7 million of current acres are set to expire.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said competition for the acres was heavy this year. The USDA offers three programs for CRP called continuous signup, general signup and the grassland program.
Of the 1.8 million acres farmers put applications in for the general signup, 410,000 acres were accepted.
The total of grassland program acres accepted was 101,000 acres and continuous program acres was 330,000, which is three times the rate farmers signed up acres for the continuous program last year, Vilsack said.
He called on Congress to revisit the caps it set in the 2014 Farm Bill as it begins to look to the 2018 Farm Bill. He said Congress set the caps at a time when commodity prices were at an all-time high and interest in CRP was waning as farmers planted every available acre.
“You can’t start with an arbitrary savings number and fit all the needs of rural America and the farming community into the arbitrary number," Vilsack said. "You really should let the needs dictate the amount.”
With commodity prices and farm income significantly lower, farmers don’t have as much financial incentive to plant marginal ground and CRP begins to look more attractive.
In fiscal year 2015, CRP paid out $1.7 billion nationally; of that, $61 million went to Nebraska. Projections for this fiscal year were not available.
“Farmers are interested in being good stewards of the land but they also have to make sure their operations are economically sustainable," said Vilsack. "That is why we worked with the farming community to adjust rental rates when cash rent land rentals were going up. With lower commodity prices CRP becomes an attractive alternative for less productive land.”
In Nebraska, the breakdown for the new acres being signed up is 20,462 acres continuous, 25,024 acres general and 31,089 acres grassland.
At its peak in 1993, Nebraska boasted 1.4 million acres of CRP. In February, the Nebraska Farm Service Agency listed CRP acres in the state at 763,000, of which 63,000 acres are set to expire Sept. 30.
In addition to preventing soil erosion and improving water and air quality, CRP acres create wildlife habitat popular with hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, which can have a significant economic impact for rural areas.
“By improving habitat obviously we improve opportunities for hunting, fishing, biking and hiking that bring people into rural areas. They spend money, they stay. They visit. They need shotgun shells. They need equipment. And to the extent that you improve hunting opportunities, you increase tourism opportunity,” Vilsack said.