The best kept secret

By Bruce Knight

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The 2015 Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) will cover up to 7.7 million new acres and provide $100 million to participating farmers.  But you only have until February 27 to sign up to be part of this year's program.  Of course, you can fill out the paperwork at any time, but to be considered for funding this year, you must move quickly.

CSP is a “payment for performance” program, so the higher the operation's environmental performance, the higher the payment to the landowner.  Farmers and ranchers receive payments for undertaking additional conservation activities and for “improving, maintaining and managing existing conservation activities.”  The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provides participants with an annual payment and in some cases supplemental payments for adopting resource-conserving crop rotations.

NRCS announced the one-month 2015 CSP signup on January 27, along with some improvements to the program.  For some time I've been encouraging NRCS to include more enhancement opportunities and more local and regional priority efforts.  I've also wanted the agency to place greater emphasis on new technologies.  So I was pleased to see that NRCS is doing that. Check out the long list of new and improved CSP enhancements on the NRCS website.

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In its January announcement, NRCS particularly highlighted some pilot CSP initiatives that focus on providing habitat for at-risk species such as the sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken or focus on conserving water and improving water quality in the Ogalala Aquifer.  There is also a longleaf pine conservation effort in southern states.  Those are the ones the agency is talking about because of its political priorities.  

But what excites me are the enhancements that embrace modern precision agriculture technology, soil health, cover crops and fertilizer management, which are much improved.  The grazing system enhancements better meet the needs of cutting edge grazing management.  NRCS deserves accolades for listening to farmer suggestions and improving the enhancement offerings.   What's more, there are enhancements that work for large and small landowners, conventional and organic farmers, northern and southern producers and ranchers.    

The changes NRCS has made are definitely a step in the right direction, and I'd like to be sure that everyone knows about them.  It's almost like NRCS is trying to keep this signup and all its improvements a secret.  As a farmer, if you have looked at CSP in the past and found it inflexible or a poor match for your needs, this may be the time to give it a new look.  With tough grain prices on the horizon, CSP payments could be what it takes to keep cover crops and other conservation innovations in your rotation. 

Despite the magnitude of the program, I'm not sure that landowners are aware of the opportunity or the short turnaround time.  CSP is a vital component in our nation's agricultural conservation efforts, and I would like to see a robust signup, especially considering the level of funding available and potential acreage the program will cover this year.

Landowners can use an NRCS self-screening checklist available on the CSP webpage to help determine whether CSP might be a good fit for their farm or ranch.  CSP applications are available on the CSP webpage or from USDA service centers in every state.  But most importantly go talk to your local NRCS District Conservationist about your interest in CSP and be persistent to get the answers you need about how CSP could fit into your operation. 

I know that with corn and soybean prices down, some farmers could be tempted to cut out conservation projects they'd planned to install this year.  I hope they will continue to invest in conservation.  CSP payments may help them proceed with their plans by offsetting the costs of conservation practices, enabling landowners to keep moving forward in safeguarding their land, maintaining the value of their resources and benefiting the environment.

I am excited about the improvements in CSP and the significant opportunities it brings to landowners.  It is one of the cornerstone conservation programs that helps conscientious land stewards while providing environmental benefits that make a difference on a local, regional and national level. 

I have had to wait several years for the opportunity to try to enroll my ranch in CSP because I was implementing an EQIP contract (your land can only be in one or the other program).  I think I will give it a try this year.  You may want to as well.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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