In our ongoing discussion of the next farm bill, I want us to consider carefully the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which has become the largest USDA conservation program for private working lands.

Of immediate interest, of course, is the 2016 sign up, continuing through March 31. NRCS is making available $150 million through CSP this year, which is expected to bring an additional 10 million acres to the CSP rolls with a goal of improving soil and air quality, increasing water quality and enhancing wildlife habitats.

As we noted this past December, NRCS Chief Jason Weller intends to overhaul the program this summer and then announce changes in October for 2017. Again I would urge the Chief to further engage the agricultural community, particularly commercial agriculture, through listening sessions to ensure that producers have another opportunity to provide input on the program. I would expect this to be a topic at every NRCS state technical committee this spring and summer. We need to look closely at the enhancements under consideration to be sure they work well for sustainable intensification of production agriculture. 

As we look forward to the next farm bill, and legislative changes in CSP, I would encourage Congress to conduct oversight hearings on the program. It is difficult to determine the program’s effectiveness given the data available to the public. While I believe CSP is making a strong contribution to soil, air and water quality and wildlife habitat, I really don’t have access to sufficient data to make an informed judgment. Oversight hearings can bring needed transparency to the program, and Congressional committees should make it a priority to hold them. Making the program more transparent should be an important goal for the 2018 Farm Bill.

Looking beyond the present and the upcoming administrative changes, I see a number of opportunities to strengthen CSP. For example, in earlier farm bills, CSP was deemed not applicable to confined livestock operations. But in fact, a number of management practices now supported by CSP are appropriate for livestock operations and could further improve water and air quality as they have done through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, provided livestock operations were eligible for CSP.  We need to have systems approaches to waste management that reconnect the water and nutrient cycles on our farms and ranches. CSP could go long way down that path.

I would also like to see our legislators consider how to integrate CSP with the larger sustainability movement. Key to most sustainability efforts is data. We need to move beyond just implementing practices to demonstrating results. Let’s develop some information-based CSP enhancements.

What about a nominal CSP enhancement for producers who participate in Field to Market or another conservation metric that gathers data to indicate environmental improvements? And what about a more significant payment if the CSP participant is willing to provide that data to NRCS, NASS or RMA, with appropriate confidentiality safeguards, further enhancing USDA’s data on results?

Let’s face it. Filling out records to substantiate the success of conservation measures takes time, and we could encourage more farmers to participate in sustainability efforts and pull together and share helpful information if we provided at least a little compensation for doing so. The return for the taxpayer would be greater certainty that the practices they funded are as effective as possible.

We need to bring conservation into the information age. Knowledge-based conservation is the wave of the future. Sustainability programs recognize this. Let’s piggyback on them to demonstrate the value of conservation practices and make better informed policy decisions. We say we support continuous improvement. Let’s gather the data that attests to the value of that improvement.

The 2018 Farm Bill offers a good opportunity to make legislative adjustments to CSP. Let’s scrutinize the program carefully now, well in advance of the first drafts of a new farm bill, and come together on changes that can strengthen CSP and conservation.

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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