Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting 3.9 million acres offered into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) under the 43rd general sign-up. During the extended five-week signup, USDA received nearly 48,000 offers on more than 4.5 million acres of land.

USDA has now enrolled nearly 12 million acres in the CRP since 2009. Currently, there are more than 29.6 million acres enrolled on more than 736,000 contracts.

 “As the commodities produced by our farmers and ranchers continue to perform strongly in the marketplace—supporting 1 out of every 12 jobs here in the United States—it is no surprise that American producers also recognize the importance of protecting our nation’s most environmentally sensitive land by enrolling in CRP,” Vilsack said.

CRP is a voluntary program designed to help farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers protect their environmentally sensitive land. Eligible landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of 10 to 15 year contracts. CRP has provided $1.8 billion annually to landowners.

The USDA strongly contends that CRP reduces nutrient and sediment runoff in the nation’s rivers and streams. In 2011, as a result of CRP, nitrogen and phosphorous losses from farm fields were reduced by 623 million pounds and 124 million pounds respectively, USDA reports. Additionally, USDA says the CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and associated buffers and reduces soil erosion by more than 300 million tons per year. CRP sequesters carbon in plants and soil, and reduces both fuel and fertilizer usage. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road, the department claims.

USDA selected the new offers for enrollment based on an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) comprised of five environmental factors plus cost. The five environmental factors are: (1) wildlife enhancement, (2) water quality, (3) soil erosion, (4) enduring benefits, and (5) air quality. The minimal acceptable EBI level for this sign-up was 209. The average rental rate per acre for this sign-up is $51.24.