A new early termination option for certain Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts offers incentives for landowners who transfer farmland to beginning farmers and ranchers.

The new policy waives repayment penalties if farmland enrolled in CRP is transferred to a beginning farmer or rancher through a sale or lease with an option to buy. Normally if a landowner terminates a CRP contract early, they are required to repay all previous payments plus interest.

"We are trying to find ways to adjust existing programs to get farmland in the hands of new and beginning farmers," said Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam, who announced the program changes last week in Warren County. "There are Conservation Reserve Program acres that are rested and ready to be productive. The technical teams at USDA will tell us which ones can terminate from the program with little impact on the overall conservation efforts."

Aaron White hopes the early termination option will make more pasture ground available to help beginning farmers grow their livestock herds. White has a 25-head cow herd and also helps on his father-in-law’s farm.

"I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access," said the 33-year-old White, who also teaches in the Carlisle school district but eventually hopes to farm full time. "If you don’t know the right people, it’s really hard to find land that’s available. This program would help alleviate some of those problems."

The land that is eligible for the early termination is among the least environmentally-sensitive land enrolled in CRP, Baccam said. With CRP enrollment close to the congressionally-mandated cap of 24 million acres, the early termination will also allow the USDA to enroll other land with higher conservation value elsewhere, he noted.

Acres terminated early from CRP under the new program will be eligible for priority enrollment consideration into the CRP Grasslands, if eligible, or the Conservation Stewardship Program or Environmental Qual­ity Incentives Program.

"Starting the next generation of farmers and ranchers out with conservation and stewardship in mind is another important part of this announcement," Baccam said.

The CRP changes are based on recommendations from the Land Tenure Advisory Subcommittee formed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2015. According to the USDA’s land tenure survey, U.S. farmland owners expect to transfer 93 million acres to new ownership during 2015-2019, representing 10 percent of all U.S. farmland.

"The average age of principal farm operators is 58," said Baccam. "So land tenure, succession and estate planning, and access to land is an increasingly important issue for the future of agriculture and a priority for USDA."

Details on the early termination opportunity will be available starting Jan. 9 at local Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices.