Senators introduce bill to restrict CRP to 24 million acres | TheFencePost.com

Senators introduce bill to restrict CRP to 24 million acres

-The Hagstrom Report

Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bob Casey, D-Pa., all members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, today introduced a bill that would maintain the size of the Conservation Reserve Program at 24 million acres, focus on environmentally sensitive land, and cap CRP rental rates for acres enrolled under general sign-ups to 80 percent of a county's average cash rental rate.

The CRP program idles land for conservation and wildlife habitat purposes. Because commodity prices are low, there is pressure to increase the number of acres in the program.

The senators' bill runs counter to the plans of House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who wants to increase the number of acres nationwide to 30 million. Peterson would also limit the rental rates to pay for the increase in acreage.

The National Grain and Feed Association, whose members make money selling inputs to farmers and marketing their products, endorsed the bill, which is entitled the "Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work" (GROW) Act.

"We commend Sens. Ernst, Grassley, Brown and Casey for introducing this bipartisan legislation to guide the development of the conservation title of the Senate's farm bill," said NGFA President Randy Gordon.

"We believe it is important that the next farm bill look to the future by providing opportunities for the next generation of American farmers to access land to build economically viable farm enterprises without having to compete against existing artificially high CRP rental rates and other CRP policies that currently create substantial barriers to entry," Gordon said. "Reversing this trend is essential to the future lifeblood of rural communities."

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"Focusing CRP on environmentally sensitive acres also enhances the sustainability of U.S. agriculture and is essential to enabling the United States to remain competitive in international markets and to capture the increasing global demand for food and fiber," Gordon added.

Currently, CRP rental rates often are considerably higher than local farmland cash rental rates, thereby pitting the U.S. government as a competitor against young and beginning farmers trying to enter production agriculture and remain in rural communities, NGFA said in a news release.

NGFA said the act would direct USDA "to modify the CRP to avoid enrollment of productive farmland that can be cropped in environmentally sustainable ways, as well as generally prohibit the enrollment of whole farms. It also would invest scarce conservation dollars on working lands conservation programs, as long advocated by the NGFA.

"This bipartisan legislation is a positive step forward in retargeting the CRP away from enrolling large tracts of productive farmland, and provides concepts that warrant serious consideration as development of the next farm bill proceeds," NGFA said.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents smaller, environmentally sensitive farmers including beginning farmers, also endorsed the bill, praising it for maintaining current acreage and funding levels in the CRP as well as for the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and doubling the acreage that can be enrolled in the CRP Grasslands Initiative.

NSAC noted that the bill would limit CRP general sign-ups to the most highly erodible land and target 4 million acres to a new Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative.

"We are delighted to endorse the GROW Act," said Alyssa Charney, senior policy specialist at NSAC.

"Developing a more sustainable agriculture system that will protect our natural resources, improve family farmers' bottom lines, and enhance our nation's food security is the most important business at hand in the next farm bill. Together CSP, EQIP, and CRP account for 90 percent of conservation spending, so focusing on enhancing these programs' effectiveness and accessibility should absolutely be a priority in the next farm bill."

"The GROW Act would further protect our waters by reserving at least $500 million within EQIP (28.5 percent of total funding) for conservation practices that protect source drinking water," NSAC said.

"The next farm bill presents a unique opportunity to make sure farmers and ranchers have the resources they need to protect drinking water for surrounding communities," Charney said. "The GROW Act ensures that the farm bill brings significant resources to the table, including technical and financial assistance, to support farmers in their efforts to protect drinking water from nutrient runoff and pollution."

"Finally, the GROW Act recognizes that access to land is a persistent and increasingly difficult problem in agriculture, especially for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers," NSAC said.

"To address this, the bill increases conservation assistance for beginning farmers seeking to access land and will include updates to CRP to help keep fertile land in production. Additionally, it increases beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer participation in working lands programs by increasing the set-aside from 5 to 15 percent in both EQIP and CSP. It also ensures that the advance payment option within EQIP automatically applies for all within this group of participants."