Last week the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced updates to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) including more than 200 enhancements, nearly double the previous number. These are the specific conservation management activities that farmers and ranchers agree to implement that take them to the next level—beyond minimum conservation standards.

Based on acreage, CSP is now USDA’s largest conservation program. Designed for conservation-minded producers with a good track record, the program offers five-year contracts featuring annual payments with the possibility of renewal at the end of the contract period, as long as participants agree to implement additional practices and maintain the ones they have in place.

In addition to the enhancements, NRCS has clarified and automated its ranking system so that producers can determine earlier in the application process what measures, now directly linked to NRCS conservation practice standards, have the highest priority. (In full disclosure the actual ranking system has not been publicly released for scrutiny to date.) Under the 2010 Farm Bill, CSP participants must address two resource concerns on their entire operation in their application and add an additional resource concern during the course of their five-year contract. The program updates also give greater importance to state and local priorities.

These are much-needed reforms, and I commend NRCS for its thorough review of the program and the weight it has given to producer comments and recommendations in updating it. The test, of course, will be whether the changes prove truly easier to implement consistently at the county level and how effective the measures are in achieving conservation objectives. One of the concerns with CSP has been that its complexity has made it difficult to provide the same program across the country. I am hopeful that these changes will prove to increase simplicity and transparency, both for farmers and ranchers and the NRCS staff charged with making the program work.

I particularly like the strategy of aligning the enhancements with the NRCS conservation practice standards that many producers are already familiar with. This also serves to connect CSP directly with other conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). That’s common sense since CSP participants are building on a foundation of conservation likely established with the help of other agricultural conservation programs.

Another approach that NRCS has taken that I applaud is providing a nominal payment for maintaining current conservation practices. This places the emphasis where it should be—focusing the bulk of the funding on continuous improvement—and addresses criticism that the funds were not buying sufficient additional conservation.

I believe these changes will make CSP more transparent to everyone and easier to administer. Aligning the enhancements with conservation practice standards should make it possible to evaluate the specific impact from CSP to water quality, soil quality and reductions of greenhouse gases. Thus we can determine what benefits taxpayers are receiving from their investment in the program.

One concern I have is whether the changes have fully incorporated the latest in modern agricultural and conservation practices. How can we ensure that enhancements keep up with the latest and best approaches to modern farming techniques as well as environmental science? Further we await the release of the enhancement payment rates to see if the payments properly reflect the costs of the enhancement.

CSP has become the flagship agricultural conservation program, spurring true stewards of the land to go further and rewarding them for doing so. NRCS has made significant improvements, and I am eager to see how well they work in practice in making this vital program more effective, efficient and accessible to producers.

These changes and improvements come at a critical time, as Congress is already lurching toward the rewrite of the next farm bill. If NRCS’s reforms got it right, CSP will be well positioned for the next farm bill. If the agency got it wrong, or the changes don’t improve the transparency, performance and accountability of the program, it will make for a rocky time for NRCS’s largest conservation program. 

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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