The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is in the process of fine tuning the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) promising to make it more transparent, simpler to understand and easier to apply for. The interim final changes updating the program in line with the 2014 Farm Bill are in place, but the agency intends to look at ways to further streamline and improve CSP as well. Comments on the agency’s proposed changes announced November 5, 2014, were due January 20, 2015, and the final rule should be forthcoming shortly.

More than 10 years ago when I was Chief of NRCS, CSP represented a new concept. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) has always been the “fix it” program designed to remedy environmental problems. On the other hand, CSP was created to reward cutting edge conservationists for their efforts and encourage them to go further. Now that the program has been in place for a decade, it’s time to use the experience we have with it to update it and integrate it more effectively with other conservation programs.

CSP provides five-year contracts that offer annual payments to producers who install new conservation practices and maintain existing ones and supplemental payments to those who adopt a resource-conserving crop rotation. Farmers and ranchers who fulfill their contracts can renew them provided they agree to implement additional practices and continue current conservation efforts. Payments generally go out as soon as possible after the beginning of the new fiscal year each October.

After 10 years, (using 2014 enrollment numbers) CSP has become USDA’s largest conservation program. With 67 million acres enrolled, CSP covers more land than EQIP at 11.2 million acres or the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with 24.2 million acres. This year alone, NRCS planned to enroll as many as 7.7 million new acres in the program.

I am not sure exactly what changes NRCS will ultimately choose to make, but I support the concept the agency has in its efforts to improve and streamline CSP. It’s critical for NRCS to keep farmers in the loop as it determines how best to make CSP more effective. This is now our flagship conservation program, and we want it to benefit producers, the environment and the taxpayers.

Of course, I can’t resist a bit of speculation on where NRCS should go with CSP. I think if I were still Chief, I’d make sure that any enhancements in the program truly align with improving soil health, including getting rid of enhancements that work against soil health. I like the idea being discussed to eliminate the Conservation Management Practices tool (CMT) to increase transparency. And I’d want to increase the focus on measurement and meaningful data collection at the farm level. I would even develop an enhancement to support sustainability programs that are springing up across the country. It’s more and more important to have the scientific data to demonstrate the results of conservation practices and to use as the baseline for future decisions. The enhancements need to be developed in a more open transparent way that reflect modern production practices and their potential to complement conservation objectives. The enhancements should be used smartly to accelerate technologies that will result in nutrient savings and efficiencies on millions of acres rather than small acreage gains.

While NRCS is overhauling the program, I hope they focus on how they manage the program. Payment rates for each enhancement should be published to the web, and state based modifications to the enhancements should be placed there as well. Finally, program results should be published to clearly show to the public which enhancements are being used and which states and counties are utilizing the program. While this is now the largest of conservation programs, implementation still appears spotty from county to county.

Producers interested in the program need to stay in touch with NRCS—through the county office or on the Internet. I am told the NRCS field offices will be trained on the new program rules in December. So, the agency will likely announce changes early next year along with sign-ups for 2016. For producers wanting to take a look at CSP, this winter will be the time to talk with your District Conservationist about the improved program.

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CSP offers an excellent opportunity to recognize and encourage leading edge conservationists. Continuing to tweak and fine tune it with an eye on simplicity, transparency and accountability should only make it better and more accessible.

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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