FAQ: Explain USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program. The 2015 sign up period has been extended two weeks—until March 13. I keep hearing about the need for farmers to do more to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields, to help improve water quality in streams and rivers. How can the CSP program help me do that?
Answer: USDA has extended the sign-up period for the 2015 edition of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). It's the federal farm bill's largest working lands conservation program. Farmers and ranchers now have two additional weeks, until March 13, to complete the initial application form.
Coinciding with this two-week extension, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has released a new, updated version of its CSP Information Alert, with step-by-step sign-up and enrollment details. The Information Alert now includes program choices ranked by conservation and environmental benefit.
Farmers interested in enrolling have until March 13
Farmers and ranchers interested in enrolling in the program for 2015 now have until March 13 to go to their local USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service office and sign up. The initial sign-up process is very simple, consisting of filling out a brief two-page application. Later in March or April the producer will then work with local NRCS staff to determine the environmental benefits of their existing conservation commitments as well as their proposed new conservation activities (enhancements and practices) on their farmland.
The National Sustainable Ag Coalition's newly revised Information Alert includes not only sign-up details, but also a complete listing of all of the 119 conservation enhancements and 35 conservation practices that new enrollees will have to choose from as they consider their CSP options.
Higher the point value, greater the expected benefit
The Information Alert lists these conservation activities in order of their conservation and environmental point values, explains Ferd Hoefner, executive director of the National Sustainable Ag Coalition. The higher the point value, the greater the expected environmental benefit and thus the greater weight they have in terms of both ranking the application among other CSP applications, and calculating the ultimate CSP financial assistance payment the producer will receive.
The top-ranking cropland enhancement—the soil health crop rotation—is brand new for this year. This enhancement requires a resource-conserving crop to be grown for at least two consecutive years and for annual crops to be preceded or followed by a cover crop. The farmer then has a choice of two out of seven associated soil health practices to complement the resulting rotation. The soil health crop rotation scores two and a half times more than the next highest regular enhancement and more than seven times the average enhancement.
Also high on the environmental benefits list, and related to soil health, are new or improved resource-conserving crop rotations, intensive rotational grazing, and a wide variety of different types of cover cropping.
You have a variety of practices from which to choose
The enhancement and practice list includes a variety of choices for each land use type (cropland, pasture, rangeland, forest) and multiple irrigation and water management choices, several options specifically for organic farmers or those transitioning to organic, and a long list of water quality and wildlife habitat improvement activities. Four enhancements specifically address former Conservation Reserve Program land transitioning to CSP.
In addition to the Information Alert, Hoefner says the coalition has also published a longer, comprehensive Farmers' Guide to the CSP. The new Farmers' Guide includes step-by-step enrollment guidance, key definitions, full explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program now that it has been revised by the 2014 Farm Bill. It also includes a detailed look at the program's use under the 2008 Farm Bill (from 2009 through 2013).
Earn more return for using conservation practices
"CSP is an innovative program for working farms and ranches, built on the belief that we must enhance natural resource and environmental protection as we simultaneously produce profitable food, fiber, and energy," says Sophia Kruszewski, conservation program specialist with the National Sustainable Ag Coalition.
"By providing comprehensive, whole farm conservation assistance, CSP offers farmers the opportunity to earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities – such as cover cropping, rotational grazing, diversified crop rotations, ecologically-based pest management, forest and range health management, conservation buffer strips, conservation tillage, and the transition to organic cropping or grazing systems – while they work their lands for production."
The CSP Information Alert and Farmers' Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program are available for free download on the NSAC website. Printed copies of the Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies email NSAC at [email protected].