Interested in a slightly modified Conservation Stewardship Program?

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 9, 2014 - Changes in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) through the 2014 Farm Bill could have broad implications on the program's long-term outlook and short-term scope.

The program was introduced in the 2008 Farm Bill and officially began in fiscal year 2010. Under the program, agricultural producers enroll land under five-year contracts, agreeing to maintain existing conservation systems and adopt additional practices that address “priority resource concerns” such as air and water quality and soil erosion.  In return they receive government payments.

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“The higher the performance, the higher the payment,” the USDA says on the CSP website.

The conservation practices must be undertaken on current working lands. This distinguishes the initiative from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which some have called a temporary retirement plan of sorts for land.

Eric West, a CSP specialist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said the program is typically well received among producers.

“What we're hearing are generally positive results,” West said. “They are able to utilize (CSP) to try management systems or activities that they may not have been willing to try without a bit of incentive, and then they see the benefit … they like it and we're hoping they carry it forward.”

CSP allows for enrollment of land falling under four categories: cropland, pastureland, rangeland and nonindustrial private forestland. NRCS has uploaded a checklist allowing producers to determine on their own if the program is a good fit for their unique operations.

The 2014 Farm Bill removed the limitation on the number of forestland acres that can be enrolled. The legislation also increased the program's focus on generating additional conservation benefits, by taking on additional priority resource concerns, and increased flexibility to enroll land coming out of the CRP.

One of the biggest changes is the size and scope of CSP itself. The 2014 Farm Bill caps enrollment at 10 million acres a year. Previously, the figure was 12.769 million acres. West said participation has been at or near the maximum allowed every year since he started working with the program in 2011, except for 2013.

In 2013, uncertainty about the federal budget led to “funding holdups,” which caused some potential participants to shy away from the program, and also reduced the time for sign-ups, West said.

CSP's previous success with an acreage allotment of nearly 13 million acres makes West confident that the program won't have any problems getting 10 million acres into the program this year.

“We don't anticipate any issues with meeting the acre goals,” West said.

Payment limits also remain on the books, and producers familiar with the program will notice no changes. Individuals or entities enrolling in CSP are allowed a maximum of $200,000 through the program, and West said the average payout per acre is roughly $18. Overall, 58 million acres are currently enrolled.

Because the initial contracts offered in FY 2010, like all CSP contract terms, were for five years, this is the first year renewals are in play, along with new acreage sign-ups. Producers wishing to renew must do so between July 11 and Sept. 12, 2014.

Producers also have the option of not renewing their contract and instead competing for a new contract within CSP's general sign-up. Now that renewals are an option for producers, renewed acreage won't count against the yearly acre cap. West said the acreage allotment might be reduced to reflect the change in demand.

“Only newly acquired acres added to the acres in the initial contract will count against the annual acre cap,” West said.  “Given evaluation of renewals will be in FY 2015, the expectation is the acre allocation for the general FY 2015 signup will be proportionally reduced.”

West said CSP signup can be done by producers at any point during the year, but applications are generally evaluated in batches, and usually in the second quarter of the fiscal year. The government's fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

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