The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recently finalized changes to the provisions of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that will increase the acreage ceiling by nearly 20,000 acres and make all Pennsylvania CREP practices eligible for sign-up in Chesapeake Bay watershed counties. The revisions will help reduce sediment and nutrient loadings from farmland into the rivers and streams in Pennsylvania and provide downstream improvements for the waters of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and beyond.
"These changes will provide greater flexibility for more Pennsylvania farmers and other land owners to establish conservation cover and increase land stewardship within the Chesapeake Bay watershed," said Michael Scuse, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. "USDA's Conservation Reserve Program continues to be one of our nation's most successful voluntary efforts to conserve land, improve our soil, water, air and wildlife habitat resources—and now our producers in Pennsylvania have even greater incentives and flexibility to enroll in the Chesapeake watershed program, bringing benefits to communities across the Mid-Atlantic."
The Pennsylvania CREP, first announced in April 2000 with a 100,000-acre goal, originally included 20 counties in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac River basins. The project was expanded in 2003 to add another 100,000 acres and increase the project area to include 23 northern tier counties. Now the Pennsylvania CREP will be expanded again to add 19,746 acres and is available to all 43 Pennsylvania counties in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The goals of the Pennsylvania CREP are to:
- Assist Pennsylvania farmers and other landowners to voluntarily restore wetlands, riparian areas and grasslands by enrolling up to 219,746 acres of farmland in CREP;
- Reduce erosion in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by 17.9 million tons;
- Prevent 265,500 tons of sediment and 15,409 tons of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from reaching the Chesapeake Bay;
- Restore and enhance riparian habitat corridors next to streams, estuaries, wetlands and other watercourses by enrolling up to 31,746 acres of buffers, grass filter strips and wetlands;
- Restore and enhance grassland habitats for declining grassland-dependent wildlife and improve water quality by enrolling up to 188,000 acres of highly erodible cropland in conservation cover plantings; and
- Improve water quality of the Susquehanna and Potomac River watersheds to facilitate the health of fish, game and other wildlife populations.
CREP is an option under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that agricultural producers may use to voluntarily establish conservation practices on their land. Producers can enroll in CREP at any time. To encourage enrollment into these environmentally sensitive resource areas, per-acre annual rental payments are at a higher effective rate than offered under a general CRP sign-up. Pennsylvania farmers and landowners are encouraged to voluntarily convert eligible cropland and marginal pastureland to native grasses, legumes, forbs, shrubs and trees under 10-15 year CRP contracts. In return, they receive annual rental payments, cost share and other incentives.
To be eligible, cropland must meet CRP's cropping history criteria, which includes cropping history provisions, one-year ownership requirement, and physical and legal cropping requirements. Marginal pastureland is also eligible for enrollment provided it is suitable for use as a needed and eligible riparian buffer. Producers who have an existing CRP contract are not eligible for CREP until that contract expires. Producers with expiring CRP contracts who are interested in CREP should submit offers for re-enrolling their land into CREP during the last year of their existing CRP contract.