USDA Announces Conservation Stewardship Program Sign-up for 2016

Over 20 million acres of farm and ranch lands eligible for conservation support2016 CSP signup graphic (1)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the 2016 sign-up period for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest working lands conservation program.

CSP supports farmers and ranchers as they introduce and expand conservation efforts on their land in agricultural production. The practices that are available in CSP will play a key role in implementing the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, in improving soil health, and protecting water quality.

“As a farmer that is enrolled in CSP, I am finding that the program is helping me stay focused on the long term goal of improving my soil organic matter,” Says Woody Woodruff, Morgan County Farmer and Conservation Associate at Illinois Stewardship Alliance. “ The program has helped me transition to an improved conservation cropping cystem by adding cover crops to my no-till system.”

CSP offers payments to farmers and ranchers for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding advanced conservation activities. The program supports a wide variety of conservation practices including: cover cropping, managed rotational grazing, diversified crop rotations, ecologically-based pest management, conservation buffer enhancement, composting, and transitioning to organic cropping or grazing systems. Through the introduction and the continuation of these practices, CSP helps farmers and ranchers address the critical resource concerns in their watersheds or regions while also profitably producing food, fiber, and energy.

Farmers and ranchers have until March 31 to complete the initial CSP application, which consists of a simple form that asks for basic information regarding land ownership, type of production, and contact information. While applicants can sign up for CSP anytime throughout the year, those who miss the March 31 deadline will not be considered until 2017.

This year’s sign-up deadline carries particular significance, as a major program overhaul is scheduled for 2017. In order for producers to enroll in CSP under its existing structure, ranking process, and current conservation activities, they must apply by the March 31 deadline.

Existing CSP participants with contracts set to expire later this year also have until March 31 to apply to renew their five-year contracts.  All CSP contracts last for five years and are renewable; hence farmers who signed contracts in 2012 must renew them this year to remain in the program for the next five years (2017-21).

This year’s CSP renewals have major implications for Illinois, as 324 contracts, covering 232,135 acres of conservation across the state are set to expire if not renewed by March 31. This is a critical opportunity to ensure that farmers and ranchers continue and expand upon their existing stewardship efforts.

While the 2016 enrollment period and program structure mirrors the 2015 sign-up period in terms of the application ranking process, payment rates, and available conservation activities, this year’s announcement does include one important change that benefits smaller acreage farms. In order to improve access for small acreage, high value operations, USDA will now set a $1,500 annual minimum contract payment floor.

This represents an increase of $500 over the previous $1,000 annual minimum. The $1,000 annual minimum floor moreover, was only available for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, whereas the new $1,500 annual minimum is now available to all farmers. Hence the new range for CSP payments per farm per year is between $1,500 and $40,000.

This increase in the lower annual minimum should give more incentive to small acreage farmers to go through the process of applying for a CSP contract.

Illinois Stewardship Alliance is working with watershed partners using the Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) and the Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to target farmers in specific watersheds to enroll in CSP. However, this CSP sign-up gives all farmers, regardless of location, the chance to also benefit from their past good stewardship practices and to add a new conservation activity to their cropping system.

In order to support producers going through the application process, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, of which Illinois Stewardship Alliance is a member, has released its CSP Information Alert, with step-by-step sign-up and enrollment details, including a complete list of all conservation activities that enrollees will have to choose from as they consider their CSP options.

In addition to the Information Alert, NSAC has also published a more detailed Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which includes enrollment guidance, key definitions, explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program.

The CSP Information Alert and The Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program are available for free download on the NSAC website at: http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications.

Printed copies of the Farmers’ Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies, email NSAC at intern@sustainableagriculture.net.