Order Code RS22910
Updated July 3, 2008
The 2008 Farm Bill: Analysis of Tax-Related
Conservation Reserve Program Proposals
Carol A. Pettit
American Law Division
The 2008 Farm Bill contained two tax-related proposals for the Conservation
Reserve Program. One of these proposals, which excludes the payments from selfemployment tax, was included in the final bill that became P.L. 110-246. The other,
which would have allowed participants in the program to choose to receive a tax credit
in lieu of the contracted annual payments, was deleted in the conference committee.
The Conservation Reserve Program began in 1985 as a program designed to remove
highly erodible croplands from current crop production. It was established by the Food
Security Act of 19851 and has been expanded and extended by subsequent legislation.2
The program provides for “annual rental payments” to land owners or operators who
agree to enroll their qualifying land in the program. Enrollment requires them to remove
land from production and, generally, refrain from using the land commercially. They
must also follow an approved conservation plan. In return, they receive annual payments.
These payments are referred to as “rent” in the statute, regulations, and contracts.
However, from the beginning, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has treated this income
as self-employment income for those who continued to farm other land connected to the
CRP land. Although the IRS initially treated the payments as rental income for those not
otherwise engaged in farming, and, therefore, not subject to self-employment tax, that
P.L. 99-198, 99 Stat. 1354.
For more details on the expansion and extension of the CRP, please see CRS Report RL34457,
Conservation Reserve Program Payments: Self-Employment Income, Rental Income, or
Something Else? by Carol A. Pettit. See CRS Report RS21613, Conservation Reserve Program:
Status and Current Issues, by Tadlock Cowan for general background of the CRP and procedures
for enrolling land in the program.
treatment has changed over the years.3 In 2006, the IRS issued a proposed revenue ruling
that would treat virtually all CRP annual payments as self-employment income.4
Net self-employment income is subject to a 15.3% self-employment tax. Since CRP
annual payments are also subject to income tax, the total tax an individual must pay on
CRP payments is generally between about 25%5 and 56%6 of the total received if the CRP
payments are subject to self-employment tax.7
Several bills have been introduced in recent Congresses to exclude CRP payments
from self-employment income.8 Most were referred to committee, and no hearings were
During the first session of the 110th Congress, two similar bills, H.R. 2659 and
S. 1155, were introduced. Again, they were referred to committee. However, in S. 2242,
the Heartland, Habitat, Harvest, and Horticulture Act of 2007, the issue was approached
in a different manner. This approach was adopted in the Senate amendments to H.R.
2419.10 The final provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill came from the conference committee.
Rather than exempting all CRP payments from self-employment tax, while still
including them for income tax, Congress considered two different approaches to CRP
payments. Each of these approaches would have provided some relief to some taxpayers.
One became law; the other remains a possible policy option for future Congresses. The
approach that was enacted explicitly exempts CRP payments from self-employment tax
for certain taxpayers. The other approach offered an optional tax credit in lieu of CRP
See CRS Report RL34457 for more information about the IRS’s positions regarding including
CRP payments as self-employment income.
I.R.S. Notice 2006-108, 2006-51 I.R.B. 1118.
This assumes no expenses to offset the CRP income, a federal marginal tax rate of 10% for the
entire amount, and no state tax.
This assumes no expenses to offset the CRP income, a federal marginal tax rate of 35% for the
entire amount, and a state marginal tax of 6%.
Some individuals would have an effective tax rate that was lower; for others it could be higher.
Expenses to offset income would lower the taxes paid. Other income would affect the extent to
which the income was taxed at the marginal rate. “Phase-outs” of itemized deductions and
exemption amounts can result in more tax being paid because more is subject to higher marginal
See e.g., H.R. 4073, H.R. 5169, S. 665, S. 1316 (108th Congress); H.R. 923, H.R. 2347, S. 312,
S. 315 (107th Congress); H.R. 4064, S. 2344, H.R. 4212, S. 2422 (106th Congress). These were
introduced after a Sixth Circuit Court case reversed the Tax Court’s holding that CRP payments
were rent that was excludible from self-employment income. Wuebker v. Comm’r, 205 F.3d 897
(2000), rev’g 110 T.C. 431 (1998).
Hearings were held on S. 312 and S. 315 (both 107th Congress).
H.R. 2419 (Engrossed Amendment Agreed to by Senate). Hereinafter “H.R. 2419 (EAS).”
payments. The credit would have been subject to neither income nor self-employment
Exclusion from Self-Employment Income for Certain Taxpayers.
P.L. 110-24611 excludes CRP payments from self-employment income for those receiving
regular retirement benefits from Social Security as well as those receiving Social Security
disability benefits.12 It is silent as to the treatment of CRP payments received by all
others. Given the current position of the IRS, it seems likely that this silence would result
in these payments being considered self-employment income for all others.13 The
committee report for the Heartland, Habitat, Harvest, and Horticulture Act of 2007, in
addressing that act’s identical provision, stated, “The treatment of conservation reserve
program payments received by other entities is not changed.”14
Tax Credit. Although not passed as part of the final Farm Bill, a provision in the
Senate amendments would have allowed participants in the CRP to elect to receive an
annual tax credit15 rather than receiving the annual rental payments.16 This credit would
have been subject to neither income nor self-employment tax.17 Those who did not elect
to receive the credit would continue to receive the annual rental payments.
The amount of the credit would have been the same as the amount of the annual
rental payment each electing participant would otherwise have received.18 As proposed,
the credit could have been used to offset current year’s taxes, but would not be
refundable.19 However, any excess could be carried forward and used against taxes in
future years.20 The credit would not have been allowed as either an original credit or as
a carryforward in any fiscal year after FY2012.21
H.R. 2419 was passed by both houses of Congress and sent to the President, who vetoed it.
Both houses then overrode the veto. However, one title of the bill had been inadvertently omitted
when the bill was sent to the President. Congress then passed H.R. 6124, which included all 15
of the Farm Bill’s titles. As promised, the President vetoed this bill. Again, Congress overrode
the veto and the provisions of the Farm Bill became P.L. 110-246.
P.L. 110-246 § 15301(a)-(b). H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12202(a) (amending 26 U.S.C. § 1402(a)(1));
§ 12202(b) (amending § 211(a)(1) of the Social Security Act).
Some, however, argue that CRP payments can be excluded from self-employment tax on
current tax returns. George F. Patrick, Income Tax Management for Farmers in 2007 at 24-25,
CES-364-W, P U R D U E E X T E N S I O N P U R D U E U. (2007).
S.Rept. 110-206, at 9(2007).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 26 U.S.C. § 30D(a)).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(b)(1) (adding 16 U.S.C. § 3834(c)(6)).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 26 U.S.C. § 30D(e)(4)).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 26 U.S.C. § 30D(a)).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 26 U.S.C. § 30D(b)(1)).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 26 U.S.C. § 30D(d)).
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 6 U.S.C. § 30D(c)(1), (3)).
Early termination of a CRP contract generally involves repayment of all payments
received from the program since the beginning of the contract.22 The proposed credit
would have been treated differently — it would have been recaptured only on a prorated
basis for the fiscal year in which the contract was terminated and the credit allowed.23
Analysis of the Tax-Related CRP Proposals in the Farm Bill
Exclusion from Self-Employment Tax for Certain Individuals. Unlike
earlier proposed legislation that would have excluded all CRP payments from selfemployment income, the Farm Bill’s provision explicitly excludes only those payments
received by retirees and the disabled. Even these would be limited to those individuals
who were receiving benefits from either regular retirement24 or disability25 under the
Social Security Act.26 Both regular retirement benefits and disability benefits received
from Social Security have links to other “earned income”27 received. In the case of
regular retirement benefits received prior to reaching “full retirement” age, the benefits
are reduced by $1 for every $2 by which the recipient’s earned income exceeds a statutory
annual limit.28 Receipt of disability benefits from Social Security is predicated on a
disability that prevents the recipient from any work that would result in earned income.29
Some might argue that excluding CRP payments from the definition of income
subject to self-employment tax for those receiving regular Social Security retirement
benefits will provide recipients with a double benefit: they will not be required to pay selfemployment tax on the income, and the income will not reduce their Social Security
benefits. A further argument might be made that those receiving Social Security disability
benefits will also be receiving a double benefit: they will not be required to pay selfemployment tax on the income and the income probably cannot be considered evidence
of an ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. In each case, where income from
the CRP is concerned, Social Security beneficiaries will be exempt from funding the
program under which they receive benefits.
16 U.S.C. § 3832(a)(5)-(6). See CRS Report RS21613, Conservation Reserve Program: Status
and Current Issues; CRS Report RL34457, Conservation Reserve Program Payments: SelfEmployment Income, Rental Income, or Something Else?
H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201(a) (adding 26 U.S.C. § 30D(e)(3)).
These benefits are received under § 202 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 402).
These benefits are received under § 223 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 423).
The proposed bill would not exclude CRP payments from self-employment income for other
retirees — such as military, civil service, and state retirees — or those receiving disability
benefits from Veterans Affairs or some other source unless they were concurrently receiving
either Social Security retirement benefits or SSI benefits.
“Earned income” is income such as wages and net self-employment income. “Unearned
income” is other income: interest, dividends, rents, royalties, pensions, etc. Unearned income
has no effect on the amount received as regular Social Security retirement benefits, though it can
affect the degree to which such benefits are subject to income tax.
For 2008, that limit is $13,560. How Work Affects Your Benefits, SSA Pub. No. 05-10069 (Jan.
2008). Available at [http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10069.html#howmuch].
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).
Others may argue that excluding CRP payments from self-employment income for
Social Security beneficiaries complies with the rationale behind the IRS’s position in an
early private letter ruling30 — those who are retired are not in the trade or business of
farming simply by virtue of having land enrolled in the CRP. It is possible, however, that
the new provision may be broader than that early position. There appears to be no
limitation on the exclusion from self-employment income; therefore, someone who has
retired and is receiving Social Security retirement benefits might return to being actively
engaged in farming and be able to exclude the CRP payments from farm income. At the
same time, the Farm Bill exclusion may be narrower than the IRS’s earlier position
because those who are retired under state, military, or some federal retirement systems
and do not receive Social Security benefits do not enjoy the explicit exclusion. If the IRS
moves forward with its stated intention to treat all CRP payments as self-employment
income,31 all retirees who do not receive Social Security benefits will be required to pay
self-employment tax on their CRP payments.
The committee reports do not explain the considerations behind the exclusion
provided in the Farm Bill. The Senate report on the identical provision in S. 2242 says
that “[t]he Committee believes that the correct measurement of income for [selfemployment tax] purposes in the cases of retired or disabled individuals does not include
conservation reserve program payments.”32 The report does not discuss why the payments
are specifically excluded only for retirees and the disabled or why they are specifically
excluded only for those receiving benefits from Social Security. The conference report
accompanying H.R. 241933 does not provide information about the reasoning for including
this provision in the bill.34
Tax Credit. A tax credit reduces taxes dollar-for-dollar. Most tax credits are not
refundable and no current tax credit is subject to federal income tax or self-employment
tax.35 In this regard, the proposed credit was no different. It was different than most
credits, however, because it could be carried forward to a subsequent tax year if not used
in full in the current one.36
Those opposing the proposed credit might argue that it is regressive in nature in that
it would provide the most benefit to those whose income is highest. This benefit could
occur in two different ways. Since the credit would not be subject to either income or
P.L.R. 88-22-064 (Mar. 7, 1988) (“[Y]ou are retired from farming. Accordingly, the payments
you receive pursuant to your participation in the CRP are not includible in computing ‘net
earnings from self-employment.’”).
See I.R.S. Notice 2006-108, 2005-51 I.R.B. 1118.
S.Rept. 110-206, at 9.
H.Rept. 110-627 (2008)(Conf. Rep.).
See H.Rept. 110-627, at 1030.
Credits may be indirectly subject to some states’ income taxes. In some states, federal tax
liability (after credits) has been allowed as a deduction on the state income tax return and, thus,
lowering net federal income tax would increase state taxable income.
At least one other credit, the foreign tax credit, can also be carried forward if not allowed in
full in the current year.
self-employment taxes, those in the higher tax brackets would receive a greater tax benefit
from nontaxability than would those in lower tax brackets.37 Additionally, those with
higher income would likely have tax liabilities that equal or exceed the credit amount.38
Because of the time value of money, those able to fully use the credit would receive a
greater value than those who must carry part of the credit forward.
Those in favor of the credit might point out that no one would be forced to take the
credit and no one would be prevented from doing so. This would allow all parties to
examine their own situations and determine whether the credit is more beneficial to them
than is the direct annual payment. Arguably, even those who could not use the credit in
full in the first year might still derive more net benefit from the credit than they would
from the direct payment since they would have to pay income tax on that direct payment
and in many cases would also have to pay self-employment tax. Thus, even those in the
10% marginal tax bracket could realize greater benefit from the credit than direct payment
if they were able to use at least 75% of the credit in the initial year.39
Other arguments in favor of the credit might come from those who believe that the
IRS’s treatment of CRP payments as self-employment income is wrong or has been
expanded too far. They might argue that the credit provides an incentive needed to
encourage enrollment in the CRP. The committee report indicated that the reason for this
provision was to provide additional incentives “to encourage eligible producers to
establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland.”40 On the other
hand, the effect on the credit if a contract is terminated early is rather mild when
compared to the total repayment requirement for regular CRP payments; so it is arguable
that the credit might encourage people to enroll, but might not encourage them to remain
enrolled long term.
Some may argue that there is no need for further incentives since there has been a
competitive bidding process under which applicants have tried to assure acceptance of
their bids by offering their land in return for annual payments below the allowed rental
values.41 However, rising commodity prices may reduce interest in participating in the
If the CRP payments are subject to income tax, someone whose marginal tax rate is 35% would
only net 65% of the CRP payments (after federal income tax but before either self-employment
or state income taxes). On the other hand, an individual whose marginal rate is 10% would net
90% of the CRP payments after federal income tax. The first person’s benefit from nontaxability would be 35% of the CRP payments, whereas the second’s benefit would be only 10%.
A taxpayer’s CRP tax credit could be as high as $50,000. H.R. 2419 (EAS) § 12201 (adding
26 U.S.C. § 30D(c)(2)(B)).
This assumes that the CRP annual payment would be subject to both federal income and selfemployment taxes, but not state taxes.
S.Rept. 110-206, at 8.
See CRS Report RS21613, Conservation Reserve Program: Status and Current Issues.
Id. See also Otto Doering, Overview of the 2007 USDA Farm Bill: A Perspective on the Past
& Future of the Conservation Reserve Program, EC-747-W, PURDUE EXTENSION PURDUE U.
Available at [http://www.ces.purdue.edu/extmedia/EC/EC_747_W_Conservation_Reserve_