Idled U.S. farmland may be large carbon sink: USDA

A farmer stands in a wheat field in Lincoln, Nebraska, May 5, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Conservation Reserve, which pays owners to idle fragile U.S. farmland, could become one of the largest carbon sequestration programs on private land, an Agriculture Department official said on Wednesday.

Some farm-state lawmakers say efforts to reduce greenhouse gases could result in a pay-off in rural America because some agricultural practices, such as reduced tillage, can lock carbon into the soil.

USDA official Robert Stephenson pointed during a U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture subcommittee hearing to the benefits of programs that reduce soil erosion.

“Land enrolled in the (Conservation) Reserve will also reduce soil erosion by 400 million tons each year and has the potential to be one of the nation’s largest carbon sequestration programs on private lands,” said Stephenson, acting deputy administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

Some 33.7 million acres are enrolled in the reserve at present. The 2008 farm law lowered the enrollment ceiling to 32 million acres. Land owners agree to idle land for 10 years or longer when they enroll in the reserve.

In written testimony, Stephenson said contracts on 3.9 million acres will expire on Sept 30, “so there is some room” for new land to be enrolled in the near future.

USDA says contracts on 4.5 million acres expire at the end of fiscal 2010, 4.4 million acres in fiscal 2011 and 5.6 million acres in fiscal 2012.

Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio