I was so pleased to hear last week that NRCS Chief Jason Weller has decided to delay finalizing changes to the agency’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) until October of next year. CSP is the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s program to reward cutting-edge conservationists for their efforts and to encourage them to continue to build on their conservation achievements to further benefit the public as well as improve their operations.

We have been expecting changes to streamline the program this fall -based on interim final rules - bringing the program in line with revisions in the 2014 Farm Bill that were announced in November 2014.  However, Chief Weller recently indicated that he believes that it would be beneficial to take additional time to field-test new tools developed to update the program.  He wants NRCS employees to have enough time to be well prepared to serve farmers and ranchers who participate in CSP. I think that’s a wise decision.

As I noted last month, CSP has been in place for more than a decade, and Chief Weller has wisely chosen to take the time needed to get it right, to ensure that the changes the agency is making in the program will strengthen the links with conservation planning and other NRCS programs.  And equally important, to make certain that NRCS employees are familiar with and comfortable using the new tools the agency has developed.

With 67 million acres enrolled, CSP is now USDA’s largest conservation program, offering five-year contracts with annual payments. The program offers the possibility of renewal at the end of the contract period, provided farmers and ranchers agree to implement additional practices and maintain the ones they have in place. 

Chief Weller plans to replace the Conservation Measurement Tool - employing screening sheets instead - along with an application evaluation and ranking tool to determine how an application meets local, state and national resource priorities. He’s also made clear that enhancements will be linked to conservation practice standards and specifications to ensure continual improvement.  Other updates will include simpler program administration and contract maintenance provisions.

As NRCS is field-testing these changes before rolling them out next fall, I hope the agency will continue consulting with a wide variety of farmers and ranchers to ensure that the upgrades meet both the agency’s objectives and the producers’ needs. It’s particularly important that NRCS work with commercial agriculture as part of this process because the program needs to support advances in modern production practices.    

Further, soil health needs to be a high priority. We need to encourage producers to move more and more into precision agriculture and precision conservation. I want to see NRCS promoting state-of-the-art management, rewarding farmers and ranchers for their efforts to pinpoint nutrient and pesticide placement.

Meanwhile, producers can expect the 2016 CSP sign up to take place in late winter/early spring next year.  The program will likely be the same as it was for 2015, although I am hoping the agency will still improve on the enhancement offerings.  Program changes coming in the fall will apply to the FY 2017 program.  Producers who are interested in participating should check with their local office or the NRCS website for details on the 2016 sign-up.  In addition, some will have the opportunity to help NRCS field-test the new screening and ranking tools and provide valuable feedback to the agency as it prepares for the upgrades next fall.

CSP has become the centerpiece of NRCS’s conservation programs, rewarding conservation-minded producers who demonstrate excellence and point the way for others in safeguarding the land while maintaining or increasing production.  NRCS has made the right decision to take the time to ensure that planned updates will work effectively for producers, agency employees and taxpayers before rolling them out next year.

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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