Minnesota farmers can sign up beginning Monday to receive federal funds in exchange for protecting and conserving environmentally sensitive land.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has existed for nearly 30 years, but new sign-ups were halted last Sept. 30 when the 2008 farm bill expired.

The voluntary program helps farmers prevent soil erosion, improve water quality and restore wildlife habitat by planting approved grasses, trees or other cover. In exchange for not growing crops on the land, the Farm Service Agency provides farmers with cost-share assistance and annual rental payments based on soil productivity and average local cash rents. Contracts usually last from 10 to 15 years.

The part of CRP that opens Monday is called "continuous sign-up" because it allows environmentally sensitive land to be enrolled automatically at any time as long as the land and the owner meet certain eligibility requirements.

"Interested landowners or producers can make offers to enroll acres that are highly sensitive into those programs," said Wanda Garry, chief agricultural program specialist for the Minnesota state Farm Service Agency.

Examples of projects that might qualify are planting filter strips or buffers adjacent to a river or stream, restoring or improving wetlands, and planting cover to protect wildlife such as pheasants and ducks. Landowners need to work with county FSA offices to lay out specific projects and justify how they would benefit the environment, Garry said.

A different part of the CRP program is called "general sign-up" and involves different eligibility requirements and competitive bidding for the land to become enrolled. The next general sign-up will be in 2015.

Minnesota has about 1.3 million acres enrolled in CRP programs, Garry said. According to recent federal reports, Minnesota ranked 8th in the amount of acreage enrolled, after top-listed Texas, which is followed in order by Kansas, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa and Washington.

Minnesota landowners and producers received $115 million from the conservation programs in 2012, Garry said. Contracts covering about 204,000 acres will expire on Sept. 30. Some of that land might be re-enrolled through new applications, she said, and some of it might be returned to growing crops.

New provisions of the 2014 farm bill allow farmers meeting specific qualifications to opt out of their CRP contracts during fiscal year 2015 if the contracts have been in effect for at least five years, and if other conditions are met. The opt-out generally does not apply to the most environmentally sensitive areas.

The farm bill also authorized a Transition Incentives Program that allows retired or retiring farmers with expiring CRP contracts to apply for an extra two years of payments if they transfer a portion of their land to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.