Donnelly, Thune Urge USDA to Maximize Conservation Reserve Program Participation

Senators lead bipartisan coalition to ensure that eligible landowners have sufficient opportunity to participate

Washington D.C. – U.S. Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and John Thune (R-SD) led a bipartisan group of Senate colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack to emphasize Congress’ continued support of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and encourage the USDA to provide adequate enrollment periods for eligible landowners to participate, including a general signup this fiscal year.

Donnelly said, “The Conservation Reserve Program is critical to reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and providing wildlife habitats. This program helps both our agriculture businesses and conservation efforts. That is why my Senate colleagues and I are urging the USDA to make sure that eligible landowners have every opportunity to participate. I appreciate the opportunity to work with Senator Thune on this bipartisan effort.”

Thune said, “CRP has evolved over the past 30 years into a versatile soil and water conservation and wildlife habitat program, that also provides a solid economic alternative for farmers in place of producing expensive crops on marginal land. Because general CRP signups account for the highest percentage of enrolled acres and are the most cost-effective, we need a general CRP signup each year to keep enrollment at its maximum level.”

Text of the letter follows. A signed PDF is available here.

April 23, 2015

The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack

Secretary

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Ave, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

We thank you and your team at the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for your efforts to implement critical provisions of the Agriculture Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill).  As you continue to make implementation decisions pursuant to the intent of Congress, please keep in mind that decisions regarding Conservation Title programs have lasting and significant impacts on the agricultural landscape.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the most critical Conservation Title programs, and the undersigned members of the U.S. Senate write to clarify the intent of the language passed into law.

CRP was originally established under the Food Security Act of 1985 and over the past 30 years has evolved into one of the most important and versatile federal programs for both agricultural producers and conservationists.  Annually, CRP reduces soil erosion by millions of tons, improves water quality for millions of people, and provides millions of acres of wildlife habitat.  CRP also serves as an effective component of the “farm safety net” by helping producers mitigate risks associated with price and production by providing an alternative to raising crops on less productive, environmentally sensitive lands.

Nearly 37 million acres were enrolled in CRP at its peak in 2007; however, as authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, the CRP acreage cap will be reduced to 26 million acres in fiscal year 2015, 25 million acres in fiscal year 2016, and 24 million acres in fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

Although the 2014 Farm Bill lowered the CRP acreage cap, this reduction does not signal waning congressional support for CRP.  It is our intent that USDA provide adequate enrollment periods, including general CRP signups, in order to ensure eligible landowners are not denied sufficient opportunity to enroll their land and to ensure CRP does not remain undersubscribed. 

The combination of larger tracts enrolled through the more cost-effective general CRP signups in close proximity to Continuous CRP (CCRP) or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) enrolled acres maximizes the wildlife and recreational benefits of CRP, CCRP, and CREP and provides the most cost-effective use of CRP expenditures.  CRP must be allowed to continue as one of USDA’s key conservation programs in concert with working lands conservation efforts.

Though the authorized CRP acreage cap for fiscal year 2015 is 26 million acres, as of February 2015 only 24.29 million acres were enrolled.  With 1.9 million acres enrolled in contracts that expire on September 30, CRP may have a total enrollment of only 22.39 million acres at the end of this fiscal year, nearly 3.6 million acres under the allowed acreage cap. 

Accordingly, we strongly encourage you to take whatever steps necessary to keep CRP enrollment near the annual acreage caps authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, including conducting a general CRP signup during fiscal year 2015 and in future years as needed. In addition, please let us know specifically how you plan to keep CRP enrollment at or near its authorized acreage caps for the duration of 2014 Farm Bill.

Thank you for your consideration of our request. We stand ready to work with you to ensure CRP enrollment does not fall below the levels Congress intended.

Sincerely,

U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly

U.S. Senator John Thune

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar

U.S. Senator Jon Tester

U.S. Senator Steve Daines

U.S. Senator Rob Portman

U.S. Senator Edward Markey

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet

U.S. Senator Mike Rounds

U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin

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Press Contact

Donnelly: 202-224-0972

Thune: 202-228-5939