Evaluate Conservation Stewardship Program

Evaluate Conservation Stewardship Program

Why aren't more farmers participating in USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program? Practical Farmers of Iowa set out to discover why the number is so low.

FAQ: Why aren't more farmers participating in USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program? What could be done to increase participation?

Answer: Provided by Sarah Carlson, policy director for Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a statewide membership organization which has its office in Ames.

While an impressive 27% of the members of PFI have participated in USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program or CSP, it is estimated that a mere 1.6% of all Iowa farmers have received CSP contracts since 2007. PFI set out to discover why this number is so low and to look for ways to increase participation in CSP.

We wanted to get a better understanding of PFI farmers' experiences when applying for the CSP, especially their experiences with the application process. We need to know how to improve the process to get more farmers involved.

PFI enlisted the assistance of Wilbeck Consulting to gather insights into the CSP application process. Wilbeck conducted in-depth interviews with six PFI member farmers who have been awarded CSP contracts. A brief summary of what these interviews revealed follows. (You can view the full report at: http://practicalfarmers.org/programs/PFI-Supports-Policy-Involvement.html).

The information that was gathered will be used, along with information gathered by other sustainable agriculture organizations, to inform NRCS at the U.S. federal level about any issues or concerns related to the CSP application process. Ultimately, we would like to see wider acceptance of and participation in CSP.

Pleased to finally be rewarded for conservation practices

All six of the PFI members who were interviewed felt they were finally being rewarded, to some extent, for their conservation work and were fairly happy that their contracts paid for some of the costs of their conservation efforts although they said that they realized it was much less than what they would be paid with other government programs.

Application process depends upon the NRCS staff person

PFI farmers' responses varied from "painful" to "easy." How they felt about the experience seemed to depend almost entirely on their local NRCS staffer's knowledge and desire to help. The farmers who had to make several trips to the office to complete paperwork found the process "painful."

That so many trips were required was chalked up to staffer's lack of time or an apparent practice of parsing the interview into several sessions. It is clear that this negative experience could be avoided since those who had good experiences were able to complete their paperwork often in a single session.

Opportunities for NRCS to encourage more meaningful practices

All of the farmers said they came to the CSP interviews with an idea of what they wanted to do as a new practice. Most had researched the enhancement list and had pre-selected the practice they wanted to implement. The NRCS staffers appear to have suggested additional enhancements, though those suggestions seemed to be either "very easy to" implement or "minor conservation steps" the farmers thought they should already be doing.

This may highlight an opportunity for the NRCS staffer to establish more of a coaching role in the process. Ideally the staff person is well-trained and able to spend the time to work with farmers to create a conservation plan and recommend enhancements with grater conservation benefits. Since this isn't currently happening, it may indicate limitations in the structure of the program and structure of the enhancement list as well as limitations in NRCS staff time and training.

Farmers would like to better understand and have access to the Conservation Measurement Tool

Because farmers could not see how their responses were affecting the scoring of the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) they didn't know how their existing practices or selected enhancements fared in the process.

If there was an easy way to run the scoring tool to generate revised scores by adding or removing practices, it seems as if some of the farmers would have appreciated the opportunity to compare practices and the resulting scores generated from the changes.

Farmers unsure whether practices were weighted properly

If farmers knew how practices were weighted, it may be a way to encourage interest in practices that weren't previously considered and which may produce higher conservation benefits (and subsequently a higher point value). However this is also dependent on whether the conservation benefits assigned to a particular practice are what a sustainable farmer sees as true benefits.

For example, some farmers felt that no-till was currently favored in the process and that it didn't necessarily have high conservation benefits. Some farmers felt the scoring tool needed to be revised to reflect such benefits and that CSP was not necessarily delivering the conservation results intended or expected when the program was initially conceived.

Farmers unclear about verification requirements for CSP

Farmers felt like they needed a clearer explanation from NRCS of what would be required to verify that they implemented the enhancements as contracted.

There was a lot of uncertainty and speculation surrounding how they "thought" they'd be checked or how their practices would be verified. Perhaps the NRCS staffers told them but the farmers did not seem to recall how it all would "work." A written explanation of what needed to be recorded or shown as "proof," how it would be verified and when it would be verified would be helpful if not already available or provided at contract signing.

Farmers liked the CSP program and would reapply in future

All six farmers said they most likely would reapply for CSP once their contracts were up.

Ultimately the farmers still believe in the merits of the program and CSP's value to the farming community. Even after some negative experiences when applying, uncertainty regarding how their new enhancements would be verified for compliance and perceived limitations in the way CSP is administered and structured, they want it to be funded.

They all believe that PFI and other organizations should continue to advocate for the program. For Iowa applicants, NRCS has application information available on the Iowa NRCS county-level offices.

More CSP information is available: USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, Iowa NRCS and the National Sustainable Ag Coalition.

Here is the NRCS/CSP application process, what you need to do if you wish to apply for the program:

* Complete a brief online self-screening to see if you meet program requirements. * Submit an application. * Set up an interview with your county NRCS office to answer a series of questions from the Conservation Measurement Tool. * After the interview, applicants should know if they have met minimum requirements and later receive a score and rating. * Within a few days, applicants are notified if they are tentatively approved and what their program payment amount will be. * NRCS staff conduct an on-farm verification visit. * Complete a conservation plan and contract. * Begin receiving payments.

Conservation needs your help! Budget cutters have federal soil and water conservation programs in their sights.

Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin need to hear from you. Last month Ethan Book left his home, Crooked Gap Farm in Knoxville in south central Iowa, and traveled to Washington D.C. to encourage government officials to continue to fund the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The CSP has been on the legislative budget-cutting chopping block.

In addition many more PFI members made phone calls urging Iowa's Senators to keep programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wetland Reserve Program.

"To make sure the Senators don't forget the flood of calls they received, we need to remind them how important continued funding for conservation programs is for healthy agriculture and a vibrant Iowa," says Carlson. She suggests that you please call:

* Sen. Tom Harkin at 202-224-3254
* Sen. Chuck Grassley at 202-224-3744

Leave a message with their agriculture staffers.

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