Where Has CRP Acreage Increased?

Posted by David Widmar on June 3, 2024

In an earlier article, we reviewed the upturn in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage. In 2021, the program fell to just 20.5 million acres, down from its 2007 peak of 36.7 million. The program shed 16.2 million acres in 15 years, a 44% decline. Since 2021, however, the program has added 2.4 million acres, an 11.8% increase in just two years.

The new CRP expansion isn’t what it initially seems. Instead, a new program, Grassland CRP, has driven all the gains. This “working lands program” allows producers to continue some grazing or haying practices. Also, the program has a much lower rental rate, overcoming the decades-long headwind of consistent program dollars but rising rental rates.

With the CRP program evolving, so has the program’s geographical footprint.

County-level changes

As noted earlier, the trend since 2007 has been a shrinking CRP program. Figure 1 shows the county-level change in the CRP program between 2007 to 2020. Each dot denotes a 1,000-acre change. Red shaded dots are counties with declines, while green dots denote increases.

CRP has a long history in the Great Plains, and not surprisingly, much of the decline occurred in those states. Widespread decreases occurred in Montana, northern Missouri, and along a stretch from Mississippi to southern Illinois.

But program acreage didn’t decline everywhere. A few pockets reported county-level acreage increases as the specific facets of the CRP program – Grassland CRP, non-CREP, CREP, and Farmable Wetlands – have come forward. The General CRP enrollment, the original program, accounted for just 37% of total program acres, or 8.4 million acres, at the end of 2023.


Figure 1. Change in U.S. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Acreage, 2007 to 2020. Data Source: USDA FSA and AEI.ag Calculations.

 

To capture the recent upturn, Figure 2 shows county-level changes in CRP acreage between 2020 and 2022, the most recently published county-level data. The first point is that national CRP acreage is essentially unchanged for these two years. At the county level, a sharp contrast reflects the CRP’s shift. Pockets of declines occurred in parts of Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Texas, and Washington. Gains, mainly from the Grassland CRP expansion, have resulted in additional acreage in eastern Colorado, the panhandle of Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

 


Figure 2. Change in U.S. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Acreage, 2020 to 2022. Data Source: USDA FSA and AEI.ag Calculations.

 

For those even more curious, Table 1 shows the 20 counties with the largest gain in CRP acreage between 2020 and 2022. Meade and Haakon counties in South Dakota accounted for a combined 227,000 increase in CRP acres between 2020 and 2022.


Table 1. Top 20 Counties with the Largest Increase in Enrolled CRP Acres, 2020 versus 2022. Data Source: USDA FSA and AEI.ag Calculations.

 

CRP acreage over time

Finally, Figure 3 animates county-level reported CRP acreage from 1986 to 2022. Again, each dot represents 1,000 acres.


Figure 3. Annual CRP Acreage, 1986-2022. Data Source: USDA FSA.

Wrapping it up

Today’s CRP program is different from just a few years ago. Enrolled acreage has increased, but we should no longer assume a program expansion is idling row-crop production. In 2023, 6.4 million acres were enrolled in the Grassland program. For context, that specific program has 90,000 acres entered at the end of September 2017. Furthermore, the Grassland CRP is a working program (not completely idled acreage) and targets pasture and hay lands. As a result, the geographic footprint of CRP has moved further west.

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