Soil and water

How the conservation reserve program can cope with climate change

This summer we received a newsletter about our land management from the Conservation Reserve Program (PRC) in Buffalo County, Nebraska. The USDA Status Review Report gave us good marks. Grass and herbaceous plants in the area were considered fully established. Noxious weeds are not a problem. “A large stand of native grasses,” the report says. And as with trees, “an excellent established windbreak”.

We have had lands listed in the CRP since the federal program was created in 1986, and after 35 years there is clear evidence of successful soil, water and wildlife conservation.

An ephemeral ravine that once ran through the farm has been healed by thick stands of prairie grass. Soil erosion and water runoff throughout the farm have been stopped. In recent years, an 11-acre stand of pollinator habitat has bloomed with native wildflowers and grasses, attracting butterflies, bees and birds to the prairies. Windbreaks planted around the old farmhouse further reduced soil erosion and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. Our up-to-date bird inventory includes over 106 species.

Read more: Get the big picture of your farm

So, with the possibility of re-registering the field in the CRP next year, it seems time to take stock of the situation, try to get the big picture. Currently, roughly speaking, the farm is made up of about half of CRP and half of row crops and forages. It’s a symmetry that works for the earth. For nature and for the farmer.

“I love him the way he is,” says farmer Kevin Schroeder. Me too.


John Walter

Is CRP a climate failure?

While the CRP may look like a success on our small patch of land, the program has been criticized by some as a costly payment to farmers with no sustainable public value. A recent report, for example, cites the failure of the program to discourage farmers and landowners from plowing the land after contracts expire. Environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration, are lost once farmers leave the program and return the land to agricultural production.

In addition, in recent years, farmers have recently been less willing to join the program. The USDA recently announced that it had accepted 2.8 million acres in this year’s CRP listing, well below its target of 4 million acres. The agency has stepped up the program, hoping to get more farmers to register. The new incentives include higher rents and additional payments for “climate smart” practices. The program is touted for its potential to help offset greenhouse gases from agriculture and sequester carbon in soils maintained in grass, trees, wetlands and wildlife habitats.

“Although Congress raised the registration target in the 2018 Farm Bill, there has been a decline in registrations over the past two years. The changes we made this spring put us on the right track to reverse this trend, ”FSA administrator Zach Ducheneaux said.

In the new administration, the USDA has placed an emphasis on encouraging practices that address climate change, including CRP registration. But some experts are skeptical of the program’s soil carbon sequestration value if most of the CRP’s land is cultivated soon after the end of farmers’ 10- to 15-year contracts with the USDA. Historically, up to 80% of farmers have converted their CRP land back to cropland, according to a study. In another report, it is estimated that only 3% of CRP land remained in some form of conservation after the contracts ended.

And once that conserved land is plowed, any sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere. “Even a single tillage can quickly destroy accumulated soil [carbon] advantage ”, according to a CRP study.

Ultimately, however, I would say CRP is not broken and can be further refined to make it an even more useful tool for tackling climate change and providing other environmental benefits. It has turned out, at least with us, to be a working bird in hand, not just a few abstract ideas of carbon bank policy that are mostly still “in the bush”.

I agree with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s statement about CRP: “Sometimes the best solutions are right in front of you. ”


John Walter

And while the new incentives and improvements to the program are promising, here are some thoughts I had on what could be done to further improve CRP:

  • Simplify program registration and management rules. A farmer survey could help identify barriers to participation. For example, during the last registration, we decided not to re-register a site with a windbreak because we would have had to cut the branches from the foot of the pines. Apparently this benefited the highland game birds. Few farmers are likely to get into the forest management business like this and Kevin and I didn’t like it either. This field remains in hay production. Thanks to Kevin we were able to manage the management requirements in a precise way, but due to various obstacles he says many local farmers simply put up their arms and either dropped out or avoided the program.

  • Improve long-term economic incentives. Another possible barrier to participation is that the prospect of higher grain prices ends up hurting CRP. Why not explore the potential of a variable rate payment indexed annually to grain prices? It could work like flexible cash rents. You would bid in a floor on annual payment.

  • Consider extending some contracts up to 20 or 30 years, perhaps with more flexible opt-out clauses, in case more land is needed to grow crops, or if farm succession issues arise.

  • Encourage experimentation with perennial crops, including grasses for energy production and perennial cereal crops such as kernza which can be used for food and feed.

  • Research soil sequestration on a wide range of CRP lands so that lands that provide the most benefits can be better targeted. Drainage, climate, slope, texture, and mineralogy all influence the amount of carbon a soil can sequester. And every soil probably has a carbon saturation point. Even our small farm has a wide range of soil types that could be compared for the value of carbon stores.

  • Form additional partnerships to increase tree planting and wetland restoration to provide technical assistance, rootstocks and planting support to landowners. Such climate-smart practices are already being funded on farmland under new USDA partnership programs.

  • Create local rewards and recognition programs for participants who have conducted exemplary stewardship of their CRP acres.

  • Carry out case studies of successful CRP contracts. The idea would be to better understand the mix of resources that ensure successful management involving landowners, farmers, government agency staff and third party partners.

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