To CRP or not? Climate Land Leaders weigh in on this federal conservation program

Climate Land Leaders are big users of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) — and full of opinions about the program’s benefits and how it could be improved.

CRP is a non-working lands program,” Maggie McQuown, Resilient Farms, Red Oak, Iowa, explains. “In other words, land with a five-year, or more, cropping history is taken out of row crop/working pasture production and set aside in perennial cover. The landowner receives rent from the USDA for taking the land (generally highly erodible land – HEL) out of production.”

There are five reasons for enrolling land in CRP, according to Lee Tesdell, who owns Tesdell Century Farm near Slater, Iowa:

“Reason 1: CRP is an opportunity to put some of your land into perennial vegetation, which means that you are creating a carbon sink.

“Reason 2: If you put your CRP in along a creek or ditch you will help reduce surface erosion and phosphorous escape into your watershed.

“Reason 3: In drought years, the FSA may allow haying or grazing the CRP (as in summer 2021). This will provide additional feed for your cattle or sheep.

“Reason 4: If you install a saturated buffer along your creek or drainage ditch, the CRP acres are an ideal location for a saturated buffer:

“Reason 5: You may elect to seed native prairie in your CRP (however, this will cost you more than seeding bromegrass), which will be good pollinator habitat and wildlife cover. Bromegrass will also provide good cover for wildlife, but a prairie seeding will give you more variety and deeper roots.”

Lee also adds: “Note that CRP along a creek will not help mitigate nitrate escape from your farmland if there is drainage tile running under the CRP into the creek or drainage ditch since nitrates run with the tile water. In that case, install a saturated buffer on as many of your tiles as possible to reduce the nitrate level in your tile water.”

Does CRP help mitigate climate change? According to Joe Luetmer, a Climate Land Leader from Western Minnesota, that depends on the “intended use of the land after the CRP contract expires. If it will merely be tilled and returned to cropland, the beneficial impacts are temporary. The return of CRP acres back to production occurs on the majority of CRP contacts.

“However, if the intent is to utilize CRP contracts to re-establish native grasslands, wetlands and forests and not return the land to cropping, then CRP offers a lot of excellent practices with decent cost share and rental rates during the period of the contract. For example, we have used CRP contracts to establish native grasses and forbs and then utilize the grasslands for grazing after the CRP contract expires. We also have 120 acres of tree plantings that we intend to keep as woodlands and silvopasture after the contracts expire. CRP tree plantings are eligible for 15-year contacts with the opportunity to renew for an additional 15 years, which provides 30 years of rental rates while trees mature.

“For permanent protection, US Fish and Wildlife Easements or the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) administered by NRCS work well. U.S. Fish and Wildlife easements can be set up to allow haying and grazing; some ACEP contracts include grazing as a management tool for native prairie restorations. Any of these programs can be used to re-establish wetlands, grasslands and forests. Choosing the program to utilize is dependent on other factors such as intended future use (strictly conservation, working lands conservation, permanent or temporary protection etc).”

Sylvia Spalding

With a new Farm Bill coming up, Climate Land Leaders have many recommendations for how CRP could be improved. Says Sylvia Spalding, who stewards family land in Iowa, the usual ban on grazing on CRP land should be modified.

“Studies on regenerative agriculture show the importance of adding animals to the mix to improve soil. [The Farm Service Agency] has told me I can’t use CRP land as pasture without a reduction in rent payment. What if the law would allow grazing during non-bird nesting season for family/community purposes?

“I’ve worked in federal fisheries management in the US Pacific Islands and where no fishing is allowed in marine national monument waters, we’ve had a clause pass that allows for ‘customary exchange.’ In federal fisheries law, selling or bartering even one fish puts that fisherperson into the commercial category. Customary exchange recognizes that fish is often brought back for family/community consumption and so allows for that as well as for the sale of fish to pay for expenses (gas, ice, etc.). I have a cousin who lives on a nearby farm who raises sheep. It would be good if she were allowed to graze the CRP. If monies are raised, what if they went back to help the community if not the family?”

Sylvia also recommends increasing the rent paid by the federal government for CRP acres. “[Environmental Quality Incentive Program] cost share for timber stand improvement is 75%, which is much more palatable than the 50% cost share for CRP (based on what FSA determines are fair prices, which do not often reflect reality).… What if the determination is based on the ecosystem services that the land provides, since it is being rented for conservation purpose? Forest, wetlands and oxbows are high in ecosystem services. I imagine land that has been in CRP for more than one enrollment should have better soil quality, hence more ecosystem services. Maybe soil testing could be included, as well existence of riparian structures, etc.”