When Congress created the first version of the Conservation Stewardship Program in 2002, its author, then-Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, thought CSP might have greater public appeal than traditional subsidies because the “green payments” would be tied to environmental benefits.

The program has survived and grown since then, despite repeated attacks by critics in Congress and in some administrations. One of those critics, Texas GOP Rep. Mike Conaway, believes he has finally succeeded in pushing CSP toward the door. 

Conaway, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee during the last Congress, tells Agri-Pulse that the “downplaying of CSP” in the 2018 farm bill is the one provision in the legislation that is most likely to stand the test of time. 

Although the final bill preserved CSP as a standalone program, the bill cut its annual funding level from $1.8 billion to $1 billion and diverted an estimated $50 million to make payments to farmers who will no longer be eligible for commodity subsidies on acreage that isn’t planted to program crops. 

“We didn’t get as far as we would like to but we moved in a direction that makes a lot more sense,” said Conaway, who believes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is a better use of conservation funding. EQIP subsidizes the up-front cost of equipment and practices, while CSP provides payments over a five-year contract to reward producers for soil- and water-conserving practices.

Downplaying the benefits of CSP practices, Conaway said they can amount to little more than moving "your water trough around the pasture every once in a while," a characterization disputed by conservation groups as well as Midwest lawmakers who succeeded in increasing CSP payment rates for practices such as cover crops that could help curb nutrient runoff. 

Still, since fewer farmers will be participating in a smaller CSP, there is likely to be less political support for the program when Congress writes future farm bills, Conaway said. 

Supporters of CSP lament the cuts but were pleased with some changes to the bill and relieved that it survived as a standalone program. The new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, says he disagrees with Conaway that the bill has downgraded the program. “It will be OK,” he said. 

In a statement on the farm bill, the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project said the survival of CSP was a "significant victory" that "ensures that farmers and ranchers may continue to receive support for working lands-based conservation approaches."

Alyssa Charney, a senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said CSP “is far from killed,” although her group is disappointed to “see a long-term cut to CSP and working lands overall, and we will definitely be working to make sure that that cut is restored when we go to write the next farm bill.”

Her group also is disappointed that the farm bill negotiators dipped into CSP to find a way to compensate landowners who will be losing commodity program payments on unplanted base acres. Instead, they will qualify for CSP payments of $18 an acre for five years. On the positive side for CSP supporters, the payments to those producers are limited to the five-year period. 

The farm bill makes a series of significant changes to the program that will have to be implemented by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Among them: 

  • Farmers with CSP contracts will no longer be eligible for an automatic renewal for a second five years. They can still get a second contract, but they will have to compete with other applicants for the funding. That competitive process may improve the program’s conservation benefits by encouraging renewal applicants to propose even more improvements to their operations than they otherwise would have, Charney said. 
  • The bill will increase payments for cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, and advanced grazing management, practices that can reduce runoff from fields and improve water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. Also authorized, for the first time, is a payment for farmers who implement comprehensive conservation plans.
  • The annual acreage allotment for new contracts was removed in favor of a cap on annual funding. NSAC fears that changing from an acreage to a dollar cap will make it easier for the House and Senate Appropriations committees to periodically dip into CSP funding to pay for other priorities in USDA’s budget. Making a cut to a program such as EQIP, which has a monetary cap, provides more up-front savings to congressional appropriators than trimming a program that has a cap on new enrollments, Charney says. 
  • NRCS will be required to provide greater coordination between EQIP and CSP when it comes to applications, planning and practices. However, the bill doesn’t provide for producers to graduate automatically from EQIP to CSP, something that could have significantly increased the number of producers carrying out advanced conservation practices, according to NSAC.
  • NRCS will no longer be required to provide an average payment of $18 per acre (with the exception for the compensation to producers with unplanted base acres.)

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