Conservation Stewardship Program Needs Your Help

CSPThe Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is accepting public comments on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) interim final rule through January 20, 2015.  This is the last chance for NRCS to make changes before the rule becomes the permanent final rule that will govern the program for years to come.  We have this one chance to make a good program even better, but they need to hear from you and your organization.

NRCS will accept comments submitted online or through the mail.  You can use the sample materials below to get started!  It is important to personalize your comment – NRCS will read every single submission, and unique comments from informed organizations have the most impact.

Step 1 – Get informed – Read the article below to learn what may change about CSP under the new rules, how these changes could impact farmers’ participation in the Conservation Stewardship Program, where NRCS could be doing more to help CSP reach its full potential, and why it matters for your farm or organization.

Step 2 – Customize a comment form. There are links to two different comment forms below, each with guiding questions to help you tell your story effectively to NRCS.  Feel free to pick and choose among the questions in order to include in your comment letter whichever issues are most important to you. 

Comment form for farmers, conservationists, and concerned citizens

Comment form for organizations

Step 3 – Submit your comment online at http://bit.ly/csp15 or by mail. The mailing address can be found at the same link.

What is the Conservation Stewardship Program and why is this comment period so important for farmers and for sustainability?

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the premiere federal working lands conservation program designed to reward farmers for adopting and managing smart conservation practices on their farms.  By providing comprehensive conservation assistance to whole farms, CSP offers farmers the opportunity to earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities like cover crops, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, diversified, resource-conserving crop rotations, conservation tillage, and the transition to organic farming – even while they work their lands for production.

CSP covers more acres of working farm and ranch lands on a multi-year basis than any other federal conservation program.  It targets funding to:

•             Address particular resources of concern in a given state or region, such as water quality or soil erosion;

•             Assist farmers and ranchers to improve soil, water, and air quality;

•             Provide increased biodiversity and wildlife and pollinator habitat;

•             Sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change; and

•             Conserve water and energy.

Farmers and ranchers anywhere in the country can apply for CSP funding every year at any time of the year. Enrollment is competitive and, typically once each year, NRCS will rank applications and develop contracts with those farmers and ranchers who have the highest-ranking applications until funding for that ranking period is exhausted.

CSP facts:

1. CSP (and its predecessor, the Conservation Security Program) has been in existence since the 2002 Farm Bill.

2.  Nearly 60 million acres of crop, forest, and pasture, and rangeland are currently enrolled in the program – accounting for nearly seven percent of farm and ranch land nationwide.

3. The 2014 Farm Bill provides sufficient funding to enroll 10 million additional acres in CSP each year in the future, on top of the 60 million acres already enrolled under the previous farm bill.

4. CSP provides five-year payment contracts.  Participants may renew their participation in the program.  During the first round of contract renewals, 75 percent of eligible participants filed an application to renew.

Why does this CSP comment period matter?

CSP has been in operation for many years, but with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, NRCS was directed to make changes to CSP, hence these new rules, published on November 5, 2014.

Although the CSP Interim Final Rule (IFR) issued in November is effective immediately, it also subject to a public comment period, during which time the public can provide comments on the agency’s interpretation of their new authority under the Farm Bill and other programmatic issues.

The comment period will close on January 20, 2015, at which time the agency must consider all comments received before publishing a final rule.

CSP matters because this program directly benefits thousands of farmers and millions of acres of working farmland every single year – by rewarding practices that improve and sustain our shared natural resources.

However, in operating CSP, NRCS has failed to adequately address several significant barriers to participation, including – most importantly – the need to fully and properly recognize and reward farmers who are committed to actively managing and continually improving existing conservation practices and stewardship activities.

To put it in plain language: CSP is designed to address the priority resource concerns of a particular state or watershed (e.g., water quality – it’s responsive to different regional needs!) by encouraging producers to actively manage and improve their ongoing conservation activities AND to add new conservation enhancements.  Yet NRCS overemphasizes adding new conservation activities while failing to adequately recognize ongoing activities farmers are undertaking.  This has the unintended effect of penalizing some of our nation’s best conservation-oriented farmers by keeping them out of the program, and making it harder for the program to reward and support great conservation efforts.

Further, NRCS is not doing enough to ensure that CSP is accessible to beginning farmers and small acreage farmers, and they have yet to close loopholes that allow some farmers to exceed the farm bill’s per farm payment limits and thus reduce available funding for more farmers.  Learn more about all of these issues in the next section.

It’s important to speak out during this comment period because we only get this opportunity every five years or so with a new farm bill.  Now’s our chance to impact how this critical program operates for the years ahead.

Key Issues: What Still Needs Changing with CSP?           

1. CSP should prioritize what’s best for our soil, water, and related natural resources.  Applications should be ranked and payments calculated based solely on environmental benefits and outcomes, not whether a farmer’s conservation practices are new or ongoing.
2. CSP should have room for ALL farmers: big or small, beginner or expert.  Improve access to the program for beginning & small-acreage farmers, including farmers growing fruits and vegetables and other high value crops, like organic.
3. CSP should target resources to reach the maximum number of working farmers.  Ensure fiscal responsibility by closing payment limit loopholes and strengthening the stewardship threshold.

The Key Issues Broken Down

1. CSP should prioritize what’s best for our soil and water.

  • How?  Rank applications and calculate payments solely on environmental benefits and outcomes, regardless of whether they are new or ongoing.
  • Why?  CSP is designed to address the priority resource concerns of a particular state or watershed by encouraging producers to actively manage and improve their ongoing conservation activities AND to add new conservation enhancements.  Yet NRCS consistently and dramatically overemphasizes the importance of additional conservation activities while failing to adequately recognize and support ongoing activities farmers are undertaking.  This is evident in the weighting of existing/ongoing versus newly adopted conservation measures, both in ranking applications and in determining per-acre payment rates. This treats the program like more of a traditional cost-share program rather than the forward-looking stewardship incentives program it was meant to be.  At best, it forces the best stewards to accept lower payments than others, and at worst it keeps some of the best conservationists from accessing the program at all, while rewarding late adopters of sound conservation systems.  The program should reward environmental benefits and outcomes equally across both existing and new conservation activities, thereby recognizing the costs to the farmer and benefits to society of both ongoing and newly adopted conservation measures.
  • Example:  For the same conservation activity with the same environmental outcome, NRCS pays more than 10 times more for a newly adopted conservation activity on cropland or rangeland than it does for the active annual management of the same activity, and nearly 8 times more on pasture.  While there generally is more of a cost to the farmer in starting a new activity then in managing an ongoing activity, and thus some justification for a payment differential, the current NRCS differential is extreme, especially for a program that aims to promote advanced conservation system management.
  • Ask:  NRCS should equalize the treatment of farmers who actively manage and improve ongoing conservation activities and farmers who adopt new conservation enhancements throughout both the CSP ranking and CSP payment structure.  Differences in ranking and payments should reflect nothing other than actual or expected differences in environmental benefits, financial costs, and forgone income to the farmer.

2. CSP should have room for ALL farmers: big or small, beginner or expert.

  • How?  Improve access to the program for beginning & small-acreage farmers, including farmers growing fruits and vegetables and other high value crops, like organic.
  • Why?  The program attempts to promote beginning farmer enrollment by setting aside 5 percent of CSP acres specifically for beginning farmers and another 5 percent for socially disadvantaged farmers, both of which NRCS has met and slightly exceeded.  This is a great start, but NRCS should “aim high” by setting a higher enrollment goal for beginning farmers.  Given that beginning farmers currently make up over 17 percent of farms and 25 percent of farmers (according to the Census of Agriculture), it is both reasonable and fair for NRCS to set a goal to have that same percentage of CSP acres going to beginning farmer contracts. As for small-acreage farmers: currently, the CSP minimum annual contract payment sits at $1,000 for historically underserved producers, with no minimum for other producers.  Given the time it takes a farmer to go through the application and contracting process, contract payments below $1,000 offer little incentive to participate in the program.  More needs to be done to increase the program’s attractiveness and accessibility to smaller-acreage producers and truly incorporate agricultural operations across all scales.  CSP payments are determined by multiplying payment rates by the number of acres.  Therefore, in most cases, small acreage farms lack the acreage for CSP to pay off, even if they’re doing more intensive and advanced conservation on those acres than much larger farms.  By increasing the minimum contract payment and making all successful applicants eligible for the minimum payment, NRCS will ensure small acreage farmers can cost-effectively implement conservation practices through CSP.
  • Example:  A 10-acre vegetable farmer using nitrogen-fixing and deep-rooted cover crops to break up soil compaction and decrease reliance on chemical fertilizer, along with advanced integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for chemical pesticides, may only receive around $20 per acre per year.   That offers little incentive to enter the program, despite the significant environmental benefits these practices offer.  Given the significant number of small-acre farms across the US, NRCS could maximize positive conservation benefits by making it more worthwhile for more small-acreage farms to join the program.
  •  Ask:  NRCS should: 1) Set a goal of at least 15 percent of all CSP acres to be enrolled by beginning farmers; and 2) Raise the minimum payment level from $1,000 to $1,500 and extend that $1,500 minimum payment level to all successful applicants to ensure that all farmers can benefit from the program and ensure the program is cost-effective for smaller-acreage farming operations.

3. CSP should target resources to reach the maximum number of working farmers.

  • How?  Ensure fiscal responsibility by closing payment limit loopholes and strengthening stewardship thresholds.
  • Why?  By statute, CSP contracts are limited to $40,000 per fiscal year and $200,000 total from fiscal year 2014 through 2018.  But the rule continues to allow for the doubling of the statutory limit for joint operations.  Worse, the rule fails to require that beneficiaries be active farmers, and allows farms to have multiple contracts despite the statutory stipulation that the entire farm must be enrolled in the CSP contract.  Combined, these loopholes allow some farms to rack up contracts far in excess of the statutory limits, limiting other farmers’ ability to access the program.  In order to ensure that CSP has sufficient funding to support as many qualified prospective conservationists as possible, these payment limit loopholes must be closed. Additionally, in order to be eligible for a CSP contract, applicants must meet or exceed a stewardship threshold for at least two priority resource concerns.  Having such a standard in place is incredibly valuable, but the current definition of stewardship threshold is vague.  The preamble to the rule outlines more specific language, stating that “NRCS guides its efforts to set stewardship thresholds at sustainable levels for natural resource treatment,” but such language is not found in the rule itself.  By using this preamble language to clarify the stewardship threshold definition, NRCS will be taking a step to ensure that CSP has high standards to encourage more conservation and recognize the best stewards of the land.
  • Example:  The 2014 Farm Bill reduced the overall acreage that can be enrolled in program significantly from past years.  With such limited funding available to enroll applicants, NRCS needs to be sure that conservation dollars are going to active farmers, not passive investors, and all farms should abide by the Farm Bill’s payment limit.  Farms of all sizes should be able to participate in the program, but fiscal responsibility means conservation financial support needs to have a cap, and the cap needs to be applied fairly.
  • Ask:  NRCS should: 1) Close the loopholes that allow the largest farms to exceed the payment limits established by Congress.  Include a requirement that beneficiaries be actively engaged in the farming operation.  This will conserve financial resources to allow more farmers to participate in CSP. 2) Clarify and enhance the definition of stewardship threshold by using language from the preamble in the rule itself, ensuring that the stewardship thresholds used in CSP will be set at the sustainable use levels (also sometimes referred to as the non-degradation level or the resource management system level), thereby ensuring that CSP has high standards to encourage more conservation and recognize the best stewards of the land.