In the previous section on conservation tillage systems, I mentioned that the conservation title in the1985 Farm Bill included several approaches for decreasing soil erosion, and that Farm Bills since then have continued a focus on environmental objectives, such as erosion reduction . One important component was the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), discussed below. (See 2002 Farm Bill and 2008 Farm Bill for more information on conservation provisions of these pieces of legislation.)

The CRP grew, in part, out of the realization that 11% of all crop land accounts for 53% of soil losses on non irigated agricultural lands in the US; that is, a relatively small percentage of the land is highly erodible. The central idea of the CRP was to pull this highly erodible land out of production for 10 yrs. Decreasing erosion would also decrease nonpoint water pollution

The original target was that 18 million ha (about 44 million acres) of highly erodible crop land should be planted in trees and grass, which is equivalent to 11% of US cropland. There was originally a five yr time frame for enrolling, with first enrollements coming after passage of the 1985 Farm Bill. The CRP was, however, reauthorized in the 1990 Farm Bill (until 1995) and in the 1996 Farm Bill as well, so enrollments (and renewals) continued past the original five yr time frame. The 2002 Farm Bill extended the program again, increasing acreage to a bit over 39 million acres; as of 2007, ~ 37 million acres were enrolled, which was about 8% of US farmland, much of it in the great plains states [Science 15 June 2007]. The program was also extended in the 2008 Farm Bill, but the cap for acreage was decreased to 32 million acres, to be effective by 2010 [BioScience 2009 59(9)]. Enrolled acreage has tended to decline in recent years (e.g. down by ~ 2.3 million acres in Oct. 2007), largely because of increased demand for farmland, owing largely to the increased use of acreage to grow corn for production of ethanol and the need to compensate for that acreage. Some anticipate that this trend will continue, particularly as demand for other biofuel crops increases into the future.

In the CRP, farmers sign 10 yr contracts with USDA, agreeing to take the land out of production for 10 yrs. Farmers are paid for the lost production on the retired land. Essentially they are paid a rental fee of around $50/acre each yr for 10 yr. (This is an average over the US, but is highly variable across the country depending largely on the potential productivity of the land; in Montana the rental rate is much lower than in Iowa, for example.)

An important feature of the CRP is that the land is not simply idled from crop production, but is replanted in "permanent vegetative cover;" either grassland or trees. The government shares (50/50) with the farmer the cost of converting the lands to this "permanent vegetative cover." (The 2002 Farm Bill allowed farmers to harvest some biomass for energy generation from CRP lands, but in these cases, the rental rates paid by the government are lower. Similarly, in some cases, farmers can graze livestock on CRP lands, but the rental rate that they are paid by the government for those acres is reduced.)

If the CRP is such a good deal for farmers with highly erodible land, why haven't all of them enrolled in the CRP? Five main reasons are cited for farmers not enrolling erodible lands in the CRP:

Has the CRP been effective at decreasing soil losses?

It has slashed erosion losses by 700-800 million tons per yr (an average of 19 tons per acre), representing a decrease of about 93% on enrolled lands.

This is over 1/3 of the excessive US soil losses from before the program began (excessive loss is the amount that erodes beyond new soil formation), and it represents a 22% reduction in total US cropland erosion compared with conditions pre-CRP!

The largest percentage of CRP lands are planted in forage and native grasses, the second largest percentage has been planted in trees (particularly in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal states), while the third largest acreage is converted to "wildlife plantings," which provide food or habitat for various wildlife species.

How much does the CRP cost the US government?

The CRP sounds expensive, eh? The US government spends nearly $2 billion per yr on CRP rental payments and costs of conversion of lands to "permanent vegetation." It was estimated originally that the government would have a total investment of about $20 bill nationwide over the first 10-year life of the program; more than that was spent since the program continued and enrolled acreages increased.

This is a superficial look at costs however, in that these "costs" don't take into account the benefits that have been reaped by the program. Analyses suggest that summing the total environmental and soil productivity benefits (decreased erosion, protection of future soils and sequestration of soil carbon, decreases in off-site agricultural effects such as water pollution and sedimentation, enhancing fish and wildlife habitat, supporting farmers income, and decreasing surplus commodity production) the net benefits are over $10 bill over 10 yrs even after accounting for the $20 bill outlay. (See Science 15 June 2007 for a more conservative estimate of net benefits -- but net benefits are estimated, none the less.)

An additional benefit associated with the CRP is the enhanced wildlife habitat that many of the CRP lands provide. The habitat value of the CRP lands has been well documented for waterfowl in terms of nest success on CRP lands in the prairie pothole region of North Central US (Dakotas, S. MN and IA). According to the Great Plains chaper of "Ducks Unlimited," populations of wildfowl in that area are the highest ever recorded. Habitat value of the lands has also been documented for prairie birds that were in decline 1966-1990 (e.g., lark bunting, grasshopper sparrow). Surveys show great nest success and population increases on CRP lands, presumably because they have allowed increases in suitable habitat area.

Also associated with CRP lands are beneficial changes in regional carbon flux -- that is, decreased fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere from these lands and increased carbon storage by them. These changes in carbon flux are associated with reforestation of some CRP lands and with decreased carbon emissions from nontilled soils along with increased carbon storage in these soils (as described in the previous section on conservation tillage). (We'll talk more about changes in carbon flux when we discuss global climate change later.)

In addition, it is important to remember that, in many cases, if the CRP wasn't in place, the government would be making commodity payments (subsidies) on crops produced on many of these lands The net program benefits just from avoiding those costs are estimated to be about $3-11 bill over 10 yrs.

The CRP may cost consumers a bit over the short term because agricultural production decreases so consumer prices increase. However, over the long term, there will be much greater payoff than cost because of the benefits listed above. There is also added revenue from hunting, fishing, and other recreational values associated with the lands.

Recent concerns about the CRP

I guess that nothing is perfect, and that seems to apply to the CRP as well. In recent years two major concerns about the programs' environmental effects have surfaced:

1. Many farmers enrolled in the CRP are planting nonnative species, rather than using native species to accomplish the "permanent vegetation" that they are obligated to establish. For example, rather than seeding native grasses, many farmers seed crested wheatgrass, a non-native species. What's wrong with that? Well, it isn't native (native grassland species are in trouble with loss of area and competition from nonnatives already), tends to be invasive of nearby areas, is difficult to eradicate, has marginal wildlife value, and doesn't do as much to improve soil as do many native grasses (because it has smaller root systems, so doesn't contribute as much organic matter to the soil). The 1995 Farm Bill tried to minimize the planting of exotic species like this, by requiring that each application for CRP status (which is competitive to get) be scored according to an "environmental benefit index." This index takes aspects such as prevention of erosion, improvement of water quality, and use of native species into account, and should make it harder for enrolled farmers to plant non-native species. Skeptics claim, however, that many will go ahead and plant the non-natives anway (time will tell!).

(2) Perhaps more serious, farmers who are paid to idle land under the CRP often do so, but plow up virgin grassland to grow crops on instead, making them eligible not only for CRP payments but also for crop price supports for the land that they grow crops on instead of on the CRP lands! This "sod-busting" is not illegal under current CRP provisions. In S. Dakota, for example, 1.8 million acres of cropland were enrolled in the CRP between 1985 and 1995, however during that same time, cropland acreage in S. Dakota increased by 708,000 acres, much resulting from sod-busting.

Those concerned about these problems hope that new versions of the CRP will be amended to prohibit both sod-busting and planting of non-native species.

What happens to the land once the contracted 10 yrs are concluded?

The first CRP contracts, covering 2 mill acres, were set to expire in Oct. 1995, but President Clinton extended the agreements by one year to await the passage of the 1996 farm bill, which extended them (as did the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills). The concern was over what would happen to these lands, especially if commodity markets are favorble when the contracts expire.

Many feared that it would be like the soil bank program of the 1950 Agricultural Act -- over 80% of that land was ploughed during the 1970 export boom -- (the "great plow out"). High commodity prices -- and continued demand for corn-based ethanol -- could similarly affect CRP lands.

Some contracts were renewed and some were not. The decision for any particular farmer depends on economics and incentives. For example, since highly erodible land was taken out of production, farmers would have to meet rigorous conservation compliance standards to bring it back into production (if they wanted to receivegovernment farm supports), which could be quite expensive (e.g., terracing or changed crop rotation sequences). It was hoped initially that these costs would keep most farmers from bringing it back into production. However, about 26% of the enrolled land is not actually so erodible that it would have to abide by conservation compliance provisions, and those provisions have been weakened, as we saw earlier. About 74% of CRP lands would, however, be subject to conservation compliance, so even if farmers do return those lands to cropping, they will have to decrease erosion somewhat compared to previous levels. While this won't provide as much protection against erosion, nor, often, the other environmental benefits associated with CRP lands, it will at least moderate the damage.

The 1985 and 1996 and 2002 farm bills involved additional aspects in their conservation titles:

(see link at the top of this page for information on various conservation features of the 2002 bill -- they are numerous!)


Without going into detail, these involve penalizing -- or at least refraining from subsidizing -- the conversion to crops of highly erodible or sensitive land (such as native prairie or wetlands). Farm benefits can be denied to farmers who drain certain types of wetlands, and benefits can also be denied to farmers who plow sensitive lands without an approved Conservation Compliance Program in place (this was part of the 1985 Farm Bill [the Food Security Act]). As you can imagine, this legislation led to much argument about violation of individuals rights to do as she/he chooses with his/her own land. It is easier for the government to justify withholding benefits than it is justify direct fines, so this was the approach taken.

Much highly erodible grassland or wetland was converted to agriculture in the past. For example, this happened a lot in the mid-1970's when farmers, motivated by high grain prices, plowed up highly erodible grassland, much of which had never before been plowed. It has been estimated that for every pound of grain harvested from this land, they squandered 5 pounds of top soil.

The Clinton administration (via the 1990 and 1996 farm bills) started a Wetlands Reserve Program that gives financial incentives to farmers to restore farmland to wetland status and to set aside wetland areas. This program is analagous to the CRP. The maximum enrollment allowed as of 1996 was 975,000 acres through 2002. One third of this acreage was to be in permanent wetland easements, one third in < 30 yr wetland easements, and one third in wetland restoration projects with cost sharing by the government. The government pays "rent" on enrolled acreage, as it does for CRP lands. The 2002 Farm Bill continued this program (through 2007) and increased the enrollment cap to 2.275 million acres.

A related program is the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. Another part of the 1996 Farm Bill involves this program, in which the government will pay up to 75% of the costs of implementing wildlife habitat improvements on active cropland. This would include practices such as flooding rice fields in winter to provide habitat for waterfwl and shorebirds. Again, the 2002 Farm Bill continued this program, reauthorizing it through 2007, and the new funding total allocated to the program is greater than a 10-fold increase over the amount committed to the program since the 1996 farm bill.

The Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative offers education, assistance, and cost sharing to private grassland owners to improve grasslands conservation. This too was part of the 1996 Farm Bill. As I read it, it was somewhat altered in the 2002 Farm Bill as the "Grassland Reserve Program," which provides 1 million acres to native grass and 1 million acres to restored grasslands.

And finally regarding great things in the 1996 Farm Bill: for the first time, the federal government assisted states in programs designed to keep prime farm lands from being developed. The Federal government offered financial assistance to the states for attempts to purchase the lands, trade other lands for them, offer various incentives to the land owner, and so forth. This occurred in the 2002 Farm Bill as the Farmland Protection Program. Funding for this program was increased substantially over previous allocations.

The 2002 Farm Bill also extended and expanded the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is a voluntary conservation program for farmers and ranchers that promotes agricultual production and environmental quality as compatible goals. It offers financial and technical help to assist participants install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land. It provides incentive payments and cost shares to implement conservation practices for crop or livestock production (e.g., building waste storage structures). I gather that it is rather controversial, as for the first time, confined animal feeding operations -- even those owned by large industrial-scale operators.

The Conservation Security Program (CSP), described briefly earlier, was also a part of the 2002 Farm Bill. It is a national incentive payment program that rewards producers for maintaining and increasing farm and ranch stewardship practices. Both existing and new conservation practices are eligible for these rewards for increasing environmental management (including water, soil, and other resources). It is designated as an entitlement program, which means that funds must be there for any farmer or rancher who voluntarily enters into a CSP contract (that is, there is no cap on enrollment).


At least two states, Oregon and Maryland, have in place cooperative ventures between the USDA and state or tribal governments, which pay farmers a rental fee and improvement fees for land that borders waterways. This land is taken out of production (under 10 - 15 year contracts) and the governments and farmer split the costs of restoring or creating vegetated buffers along these waterways. Oregon's program is called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. In Maryland, the focus is on decreasing runoff into waters; runoff carrying soil and fertilizer that is believed to contribute to the large "dead zone" that forms in Chesapeake Bay as a result of its tremendous "enrichment." In Oregon, the CREP is focused on establishing forested buffers along streams that run through agricultural land, that don't have fully functioning riparian (streamside) buffers in place, and that support fish that are listed as threatened (or endangered) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Farmers are paid a "rental fee," bonuses, and a per acre maintenance fee. The program pays up to 75% of the costs for establishing the riparian buffers.


The next section discusses practices that attempt to maintain the soil's inherent fertility to a greater extent than do traditional farming practices (click to jump there now). To return to the previous section (on conservation tillage) click "<<" at the bottom of this page, or click "CONTENTS" to return to the master directory for the BI301 home page. Click "NAVIGATE" for general reminders on how to move about within and among these documents.

This page is maintained by Patricia Muir at Oregon State University. Page last updated (partially) Nov. 25, 2012.