The centerpiece of Joe Biden’s plan to help farmers address climate change is a “dramatic” expansion of the Conservation Stewardship Program, but he’ll quickly find skeptics on Capitol Hill and among environmental groups if he gets elected and tries to carry out the proposal. 

Even supporters of the program say Biden also would face a major challenge in ramping up CSP, which is designed to reward producers for improved environmental practices on working lands: a shortage of USDA staff and private consultants to provide the advice and help farmers would need to apply for CSP and other forms of USDA conservation assistance.

One of the key lawmakers Biden would have to win over if he gets reelected this fall is the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

“I’m not sure that by itself is going to be a solution. It’s going to be a combination of things that I think we have to focus on,” Peterson said in a recent interview with Agri-Pulse

Peterson, for one, would also push for an expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program, which unlike CSP removes land from production. 

“Putting all of our eggs in one basket is a mistake. If the CSP is going to be expanded it’s going to take some reforms and it’s also going to take a lot more people that are going to be on the ground in order to implement this,” Peterson said. 

Collin Peterson

House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson

Biden hasn’t been alone in eyeing CSP as a key way to provide new financial support to farmers while paying them to undertake practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere and protect water quality at the same time. 

While campaigning for the Democratic Party's presidential bid in 2019, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed to increase CSP spending to $15 billion a year from its current level of $1 billion, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill that would expand CSP to $7 billion a year. 

Biden hasn’t specified a number, but his rural plan calls for making agriculture carbon-neutral while using CSP to help farmers “earn income as we meet this milestone.”

To do that, a Biden administration would “dramatically expand and fortify the pioneering Conservation Stewardship Program, created by former Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin, to support farm income through payments based on farmers’ practices to protect the environment, including carbon sequestration,” the plan says. 

To help fund the expansion, Biden would allow corporations, individuals, and foundations to offset greenhouse gas emissions by contributing to CSP to subsidize the payments to producers. 

“This will not only help combat climate change … but also create additional revenue sources for farmers at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. And, this approach will create a whole series of new businesses that survey, measure, certify and quantify conservation results,” the plan says. 

The plan doesn’t directly address the staffing and technical assistance requirements, a concern raised not only by Peterson but also by outside groups that follow CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides cost-share assistance to help with the upfront costs of implementing practices and buying equipment. Farmers can obtain CSP contracts based on the conservation practices they undertake and receive annual payments for five years. 

“You are not going to be able to double the size of CSP or EQIP without increasing the staff at the local level,” said Coleman Garrison, director of government affairs for the National Association of Conservation Districts. 

“You have to realize the way these programs get out the door is by having people at the local level to get them out the door,” he said. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers both programs, had a budget for conservation technical assistance of $720 million for fiscal 2020 and a staff of 3,066, the same amounts as in FY19 and well below the FY18 levels of $769 million and 3,507 employees. The 2021 budget year begins Thursday, but Congress has yet to pass a funding bill for USDA or any other departments. 

Ferd Hoefner

Ferd Hoefner, NSAC

Ferd Hoefner, a senior policy adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a longtime supporter of CSP, says that the Biden plan, by proposing to enlist nongovernmental funding sources, merges two schools of thought about the best ways to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint: Use conservation payments to do it directly, or rely on corporations to provide the financial incentives. 

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“It was very clever of them to say, ‘Hey, we can marry these and have companies that are interested in this buy into the public program.' … That’s a novel way of increasing public funding,” Hoefner said. 

By routing corporate funding through CSP, the Biden approach would provide some public accountability for the way the money is spent. 

Craig Cox, senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources for the Environmental Working Group, says he would like to see a heavy emphasis within CSP on promoting soil health and regenerative farming practices. But he says there needs to be a dedicated long-term source of funding for technical assistance at NRCS to ensure that farmers get the advice they need. 

CSP still has its detractors who think federal conservation dollars are better focused on EQIP to pay for upfront costs. Those detractors include Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, who as House Agriculture Committee chairman tried to eliminate CSP through the 2018 farm bill. The House version of the bill would have repealed CSP and replaced it with a stewardship contract under EQIP. But the Senate insisted on maintaining funding for the program through the end of the farm bill in 2023; CSP is slated to be cut sharply after that. 

The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate CSP in its annual budgets. "The program has struggled to demonstrate outcomes and may provide payments that overcompensate for enhancement," USDA said in explanatory material provided to Congress with the FY21 budget proposal. 

Conaway, who is retiring from Congress, still thinks conservation spending should be concentrated on EQIP and the Conservation Reserve Program. “CSP is outdated and needs to go away,” he told Agri-Pulse

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