USDA announced this week that it will conduct a four-week Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general signup, beginning March 12 and ending April 6.

"CRP is an important program for protecting our most environmentally sensitive lands from erosion and sedimentation, and for ensuring the sustainability of our groundwater, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams, said Michael Scuse, acting under secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. “As always, we expect strong competition to enroll acres into CRP, and we urge interested producers to maximize their environmental benefits and to make cost-effective offers."

Currently, about 30 million acres are enrolled in the program, and contracts on an estimated 6.5 million acres will expire Sept. 30.

Offers for CRP contracts are ranked according to the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) collects data for each of the EBI factors based on the relative environmental benefits for the land offered. Each eligible offer is ranked in comparison to all other offers and selections made from that ranking. FSA uses the following EBI factors to assess the environmental benefits for the land offered:

● Wildlife habitat benefits resulting from covers on contract acreage.

● Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff and leaching.

● On-farm benefits from reduced erosion.

● Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period.

● Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion.

● Cost.

The program has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and two million acres of riparian buffers over the past 25 years, USDA reports. The agency lists these additional CRP highlights:

● Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into streams, rivers, and lakes.

● It sequesters carbon in plants and soil and reduces fuel and fertilizer usage. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.

● It pays landowners $1.8 billion annually.

For more information on CRP and other FSA programs, visit a local FSA service center or www.fsa.usda.gov.