If you’re familiar with U.S. production agriculture, you know that the Conservation Reserve Program has seen a massive decline in enrolled acres. Now, a new government report provides more information on what happened to the CRP land after it left the program.

The report, “The Fate of Land in Expiring Conservation Reserve Program Contracts, 2013-16,” was prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, or ERS. It draws on data from a number of sources, including USDA’s Farm Service Agency and National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Since 2008, nearly 13 million acres have left the program, much of it going back into production, the report said.

Mary Podoll, North Dakota state conservationist with the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service, said she isn’t troubled by the decline.

“I’m not concerned about seeing fewer acres in CRP,” she said. “We’ve just gotten smarter” in dealing with environmentally sensitive land.

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CRP is a federal program that pays landowners to take environmentally sensitive land out of production, with the land planted to grass and other vegetation. CRP contracts are for either 10 to 15 years and the land potentially can be re-enrolled.

Established in 1985, CRP reached peak enrollment in 2007 when 36.7 million acres were in the program nationwide. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana were among the leaders in CRP enrollment, and the program was popular in northwest Minnesota, too.

Today, nationwide CRP enrollment stands at about 22 million acres. The reduction reflects new and improved farm equipment and farming practices, which make farming once-marginal land more feasible; lower federal limits on CRP enrollment; and attractive crop prices from 2007 to 2012, which caused some farmers not to renew expiring CRP contracts.

And some land that once might have been in CRP is now enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, Podoll said.

In CSP, ag producers and forest landowners earn payments to actively manage, maintain and expand conservation activities such as cover crops and buffer strips, while maintaining active ag production on their land. There is no active ag production on CRP land.

Today’s better, fuller understanding of soil health helps farmers to find alternatives, such as CSP, to CRP, Podoll said.

The report says …

The ERS report tracked 7.6 million acres of the 8.1 million acres enrolled in CRP contract that expired in 2013-16. The round found, among other things:

  • Thirty-six percent of the expiring CRP was subsequently re-enrolled.

  • Forty-eight percent of land in “continuous” CRP sign-up — a type of CRP that targets practices and land with an especially high conservation value — was re-enrolled. In contrast, 34% of land in the “general” CRP sign-up, which has relatively lower conservation value, was re-enrolled.

  • Fifty-one percent of expiring CRP land was put into some type of crop production, including annual crops (36%), perennial specialty crops (7%), and perennial forage crops (7%):

  • On land that transitioned to annual crop production, the most common crops were soybeans (21%), corn (16%), and wheat (16%). The three are popular in most of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Podoll said she wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings.

She also said, “CRP will continue to have a role, at least in my lifetime.”