WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2015 - USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) says its plan to have a new and improved Conservation Stewardship Program up and running by January has been delayed. Now, the CSP’s new features won’t be fully rolled out until the beginning of 2017.
Mark Rose, the acting deputy chief of programs with NRCS, told Agri-Pulse Tuesday that implementation of the CSP upgrades would start in October 2016 and should be complete by the 2017 sign-up period.
“The decision to change the target date to the beginning of the next fiscal year will allow the time necessary to fully field test the new tools with our employees and partners, ensuring that we are well prepared to best serve the farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who are working to achieve their stewardship goals,” Rose said in an email.
CSP is a working lands conservation program that provides farmers and ranchers who enter into five-year contracts with NRCS up to $40,000 a year in funding to implement best management practices on their land.
Currently, CSP has about 49,000 active contracts that cover over 65 million acres. In a recent interview, NRCS Chief Jason Weller said the program is “very popular” and “way over-subscribed.” For instance, in fiscal 2015, NRCS received over 21,000 applications for CSP contracts, but was only able to offer assistance to about 6,000 applicants.
The CSP “makeover” was designed to make the program “easier to use” and to make the application process “more transparent and effective,” Weller said. It will help NRCS agents develop more individualized conservation plans for producers more focused on specific “enhancement” objectives, like improving wildlife habitat and soil health or managing for pests, he said. It will also combine the predicative power of NRCS’ portfolio of modeling tools, including edge-of-field monitoring, soil health assessments and others.
Weller said the way CSP has been run the past five years has made the program “pretty complex” with a “black box element to it” that “is very difficult for our field people to use (and) explain to a person” interested in entering into a CSP contract. The new CSP is “going to look and feel a lot like EQIP (NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program)… Something people trust and use all the time,” Weller said.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition released a statement Monday applauding NRCS’s decision to extend the “overhaul” timeline. NSAC said the delay will not only more time for training NCRS employees on the changes, “but it also allows stakeholders to provide input before these changes go into effect.”
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