The Conservation Reserve Program

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Tall grass offers a resting place for deer, as well as a habitat for other fauna.
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Bobwhite Quail thrive in CRP habitats.
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Purple coneflowers dot a restored Illinois prairie.

If you are a landowner, you undoubtedly know by now that what you do with your land carries a significant impact on the environment. But being environmentally sensitive on an acre or less is a lot easier than trying to make the right choices for the environment when you own a large farm or ranch.

If you’re a farmer who would like to make some positive changes for the environment, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) may be able to help.

The USDA Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Conservation Reserve Program is the largest voluntary conservation program currently available to provide financial assistance to farmers and ranchers willing to take some of their qualifying cropland out of production and replant it in ways to benefit the environment.

The original goal of the CRP program was to cut down on erosion caused by agricultural practices. To achieve that result, acreage enrolled in CRP is planted with vegetative cover such as native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips or riparian buffers. In addition to reducing erosion, these changes benefit the environment in other ways, including improved air quality, reduced damage from floods, improved water quality due to the reduction of chemical runoff, and increased wildlife habitat.

In exchange for making these changes, farmers may receive annual rental payments for the term of a multiyear contract, as well as cost-share assistance to establish the vegetative cover.

The CRP program has been very effective. It is estimated that in 2007, CRP reduced soil erosion by 470 million tons from pre-CRP levels. Bird populations, especially Ring-necked Pheasants, Sage Grouse, grassland birds, and ducks from the Prairie Pothole region in the northern Great Plains, enjoy a less bleak outlook since the CRP’s inception.

Despite the many benefits to the environment, not every landowner can receive CRP funds. The main limiting factor to CRP participation is money. With a limited amount of money available, only the most qualified land can receive CRP payments.

To be eligible to apply for CRP funds, the general rule is that a landowner must have owned or operated the land for at least 12 months prior to applying for funding, or must have acquired the land due to the previous landowner’s death.

There are certain circumstances that would allow land that does not meet these requirements to be considered if the owner can provide adequate assurance to the FSA that the land was not acquired specifically for the purpose of placing it into CRP.

The land must be “cropland” (including field margins) that is “planted or considered planted to an agricultural commodity four of the previous six crop years, and which is physically and legally capable of being planted in a normal manner to an agricultural commodity.” Certain marginal pastureland would qualify if suitable for use as a riparian buffer or for similar water quality purposes.

If the landowner and the land meet those requirements, the land then is ranked according to an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). The FSA collects data for each of the EBI factors based on the relative environmental benefits for the land offered. Each eligible offer is ranked in comparison to all other offers and selections made from that ranking. FSA uses the following EBI factors to assess the environmental benefits of land:

  • Wildlife habitat benefits resulting from covers on contract acreage;
  • Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff and leaching;
  • On-farm benefits from reduced erosion;
  • Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period;
  • Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion; and cost.

CRP funding enrollment has two types: general and continuous.

Enrollment for general funds is held only during designated periods, and availability of these funds is limited and highly competitive.

Highly sensitive environmental land such as riparian areas adjacent to streams and creeks, bottomland areas and living snowfences may be enrolled in CRP at any time under continuous sign-up. As long as funds are available, offers are automatically accepted into this part of the program, provided the land and producer meet the eligibility requirements. Offers for continuous sign-up are not subject to the same competition that affects properties in general sign-up.

If a property owner wishes to apply for CRP funding, it is best to first contact the local USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS), state fish and wildlife agency or other conservation consultants prior to applying. Working with these agencies, landowners can develop a plan to present to the FSA stating the proposed changes to their land.

If a property owner’s proposal is accepted, FSA provides annual rental payments based on the agriculture rental value of the land, and it provides cost-share assistance for up to 50 percent of the participant’s costs in establishing approved conservation practices.

For more information about the Conservation Reserve Program, contact your local FSA Office. Check out the USDA’s Service Center Locator online at