Mandatory Spending

Function 300 - Natural Resources and Environment

Limit Enrollment in the Department of Agriculture's Conservation Programs

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Billions of Dollars 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2017-2021 2017-2026
Change in Outlays                        
  Phase out the Conservation Stewardship Program 0 * -0.2 -0.4 -0.5 -0.7 -0.9 -1.0 -1.2 -1.5 -1.1 -6.4
  Scale back the Conservation Reserve Program 0 * * * -0.1 -0.1 -0.5 -0.6 -0.9 -1.0 -0.1 -3.3
  Both alternatives above 0 * -0.2 -0.4 -0.6 -0.8 -1.4 -1.7 -2.2 -2.4 -1.3 -9.7

This option would take effect in October 2017.

* = between –$50 million and zero.

Under the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), landowners enter into contracts with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to undertake various conservation measures—including ones to conserve energy and improve air quality—in exchange for annual payments and technical help. Those contracts last five years and can be extended for another five years. For every acre enrolled in the CSP, a producer receives compensation for carrying out new conservation activities and for improving, maintaining, and managing existing conservation practices. Current law limits new enrollment in the CSP to 10 million acres per year, at an average cost of $18 per acre; in 2015, USDA spent $1 billion on the program.

Under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), landowners enter into contracts to stop farming on specified tracts of land, usually for 10 to 15 years, in exchange for annual payments and cost-sharing grants from USDA to establish conservation practices on that land. One type of tract used in the program is a “conservation buffer”—a narrow strip of land maintained with vegetation to intercept pollutants, reduce erosion, and provide other environmental benefits. Acreage may be added to the CRP through general enrollments, which are competitive and held periodically for larger tracts of land, or through continuous enrollments, which are available at any time during the year for smaller tracts of land. Current law caps total enrollment in the CRP at 24 million acres by 2017; in 2015, USDA spent $2 billion on the roughly 24 million acres enrolled.

Beginning in 2018, the first part of this option would prohibit new enrollment in the CSP. Land enrolled now—and therefore hosting new or existing conservation activities—would be eligible to continue in the program until the contract for that land expired. By the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates, prohibiting new enrollment would reduce federal spending by $6 billion through 2026.

Beginning in 2018, the second part of this option would prohibit both new enrollment and reenrollment in the general enrollment portion of the CRP; continuous enrollment would remain in effect under the option. Prohibiting general enrollment would reduce spending by $3 billion through 2026, CBO estimates. The amount of land enrolled in the CRP would drop to about 10 million acres by 2026.

One argument for prohibiting new enrollment in the CSP and thus phasing out the program is that some provisions of the program limit its effectiveness. For example, paying farmers for conservation practices they have already adopted may not enhance the nation’s conservation efforts. Moreover, USDA’s criteria to determine payments for conservation practices are not clear, and payments may be higher than necessary to encourage farmers to adopt new conservation measures.

An argument against phasing out the CSP is that, unlike traditional crop-based subsidies, the CSP may offer a way to support farmers while also providing environmental benefits. Furthermore, conservation practices often impose significant up-front costs, which can reduce the net economic output of agricultural land, and CSP payments help offset those costs.

One argument for scaling back the CRP is that the land could become available for other uses that would provide greater environmental benefits. For example, reducing enrollment could free more land to produce crops and biomass for renewable energy products.

An argument against scaling back the CRP is that studies have indicated that the program yields high returns—in the form of enhanced wildlife habitat, improved water quality, and reduced soil erosion—for the money it spends. Furthermore, USDA is enrolling more acres targeting specific environmental and resource concerns, perhaps thereby improving the cost-effectiveness of protecting fragile tracts.