In May the results of the 49th annual Conservation Reserve Program enrollment results were announced with more than 800,000 acres nationwide accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help farmers offset the costs of restoring, enhancing and protecting certain grasses, shrubs and trees that improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and strengthen wildlife habitat.
Historically, Scotland County landowners have been able to get all the ground they wanted, into the program. During the last signup period in 2015, Scotland County had a 100% acceptance rate with all 45 enrollments entered into the CRP program.
According to Bob Garino, Missouri State Statistician with the USDA – National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Scotland County had more than 28,000 acres in CRP in 2015. That number is expected to drop below 27,000 this year when the new contract period opens November 1.
That is because in 2016 just four of the 73 enrollment signups were accepted. But Scotland County was not alone. According to Allen Powell of the Missouri Farm Service Agency, Midwestern states averaged just 17-19% acceptance rates.
“Typically for most past signups, MO had a 90% plus acceptance rate for general signup, but the CRP ceiling has been coming down from 29 million to 24 since the last farm bill passed,” said Powell.
According to the USDA, this was one of the most selective sign-up periods in CRP’s 30-year history, with a record high Environmental Benefits Index cut-off and the lowest-percentage of applications accepted.
Powell indicated the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) score cutoff soared to 292 to earn enrollment, further reflecting how competitive the current sign-up period was, since previous cutoffs had been in the 230-250 range.
USDA officials say that means that the per-acre conservation benefits are being maximized and that acres enrolled address multiple conservation priorities simultaneously.
Farmers in Scotland County may not see it that way after 69 of the 73 applications for CRP in 2016 were denied by the USDA, leaving local farmers with just a 5.4% acceptance rate.
For local producers who wondered if the loss of a possible 30 extra points previously available to Scotland County as a Wildlife Protection Area, impacted the results, Powell offered some context.
“Producers didn’t automatically get those points when Scotland County was a WPA,” said Powell. “But we had one county whose producers did qualify for the 30 points for wildlife. They had 231 offers and only got one accepted.”
The squeeze has come threefold for local producers. A nationwide acreage limit was established for this program in the 2014 Farm Bill, capping the total number of acres that may be enrolled at 24 million for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. That is less than half the 45 million acre level first created in 1985 when the CRP program was created by the 1985 Food Security Act.
At the same time, USDA has experienced a record demand from farmers and ranchers interested in participating in the voluntary program. As of March 2016, 23.8 million acres were enrolled in CRP, with 1.7 million acres set to expire this fall.
Over three million acres have been offered for enrollment this year across the three main categories within CRP, with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) receiving over 26,000 offers to enroll more than 1.8 million acres during the general enrollment period.
Then you factor in the rapidly expanding number of special categories, such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and continuous CRP.
During this signup over 4,600 offers were made to enroll more than one million acres in the new CRP Grasslands program. Coming off a record-setting 2015 continuous enrollment of over 860,000 acres, more than 364,000 acres already have been accepted for 2016 in the CRP continuous enrollment, triple the pace of last year.
So, FSA accepted just 411,000 acres in general enrollment, the most competitive selection in the history of the program.
USDA selected offers by weighing environmental factors plus cost, including wildlife enhancement, water quality, soil erosion, enduring benefits, and air quality.
The results of the first-ever enrollment period for CRP Grasslands, FSA will also accept 101,000 acres in the program, providing participants with financial assistance for establishing approved grasses, trees and shrubs on pasture and rangeland that can continue to be grazed. More than 70 percent of these acres are diverse native grasslands under threat of conversion, and more than 97 percent of the acres have a new, veteran or underserved farmer or rancher as a primary producer. FSA continues to accept CRP Grasslands offers and will conduct another ranking period later this year. Acres are ranked according to current and future use, new and underserved producer involvement, maximum grassland preservation, vegetative cover, pollinator habitat and various other environmental factors.
While the 49th sign-up period was the most competitive on record, experts are expecting much of the same next year.
That causes some concern for the local economy. In 2015 CRP generated a record high $2,877,203 of income for landowners in Scotland County.
That income level had remained fairly consistent, since 1985, with roughly $2.5 million a year coming into the county thru the CRP program.
The income level had remained fairly level despite already declining numbers of acres in the program. A record high 42,825 acres in Scotland County were in CRP in 2007. By 2014 that had dropped to 29,314 acres.
The overall revenue remained high as average rental raises rose from around $70 in 2010 to $98.15 in 2014.
Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion to help producers make conservation improvements, working with as many as 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect land and water on over 400 million acres nationwide.
But in the 49th CRP sign-up, Missouri offered 121,307 acres in 2,649 separate enrollments, with only 472 offers and 20,867 acres being accepted.
Missouri producers aren’t alone in feeling the squeeze on CRP acres.
Shortly after the current signup results were released, the South Dakota congressional delegation officially requested USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reevaluate the selection process after the state saw similarly dismal success rates to Scotland County in the most recent signup.
U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) complained that out of 727 South Dakota applications for more than 42,000 acres, only 101 acres were accepted by USDA.
“Drastically restricting the number of general CRP contract enrollment acres in our state removes the option for most expiring large landscape CRP contract acres from being reenrolled in CRP,” the delegation wrote. “And as a result, because they are denied the option to enroll in general CRP contracts, tens of thousands of acres of marginal land in expiring CRP contracts will be returned to crop production, resulting in higher costs to taxpayers due to increased commodity crop base acres and payments, and increased crop insurance subsidy and indemnity payments. In addition, South Dakota’s already shrinking grassland landscape will dwindle at an accelerated pace.”