WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2016 - Call it CSP 3.0. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is preparing to roll out a series of major changes to the Conservation Stewardship Program designed to make it easier for farmers and agency field staff to use and to ensure its environmental benefits are better targeted to local needs.

The overhaul, which the agency calls a “refresh,” will include replacing the previous system for ranking applications, called a “conservation measure tool,” that is used to assess the benefits of existing and additional conservation measures that a farmer may take.

The agency also is nearly doubling the number of conservation enhancements that will qualify for payments, and will give states some new flexibility to use CSP to better target local resource concerns. Other changes will make it possible for farmers to revise their contracts in the middle of the term.

“In the end what we’re trying to do is update, refresh and strengthen CSP so it’s easier to understand, it’s more flexible for a producer,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller told Agri-Pulse. “It's going to be better integrated to be part of modern agriculture.”

There is already strong demand for CSP. Because of the annual acreage caps, NRCS typically can enroll one of every two to three acres for which farmers apply. If Weller is right that the revisions will make it even more popular with producers, then CSP could have a broader, deeper base of political support heading into the debate likely to start next year on a new farm bill.

CSP has been something of a stepchild to two more popular programs, especially the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which subsidizes the cost of capital improvements, including irrigation equipment, manure lagoons, fencing and other structures.

“Right now EQIP is probably the workhorse” among conservation programs, said Dave White, who preceded Weller at NRCS and attended a briefing last week on the changes. “This will engender that kind of support for CSP.”

That could be an important factor in the farm bill debate as conservation and commodity programs are likely to be under increasing pressure because of growing demands for funding and a shrinking baseline from which to fund them.

CSP was created by the 2002 farm bill as a “green payment” program that would reward farmers for practices that conserved soil and protected water and air quality. It initially was named the Conservation Security Program, a nod to the post-9/11 era, but it was overhauled in 2008 and renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program. The 2014 farm bill then made further refinements, including eliminating the definition of “conservative measurement tool,” that are being incorporated into the new rules. More than 70 million acres are currently enrolled in the program.

The full details of the revisions won’t be released until this fall as NRCS prepares to begin the 2017 enrollment process, but the key changes include these:

·         The new assessment tool will allow producers to more easily evaluate their conservation options online and tell how much they could potentially get paid through CSP using various types of conservation practices.
The old system is a “black box. No one understands it,” Weller said. NRCS field personnel “say they can spend hours just trying to get one producer through the conservation measurement tool process. Its cumbersome and its not very flexible.” The idea is that a producer will be able to use the online tool to decide whether it’s worth applying for CSP and then schedule an appointment with the agency to complete the application process.

·         The agency will nearly double the number of “enhancements” and conservation practices that farmers can use to qualify for CSP contracts. For example, CSP says there will be four enhancements for using gypsum as a soil amendment. Gypsum can improve water quality by reducing dissolved phosphorus and preventing manure-borne pathogens from getting into ground and surface water.
Enhancements for monarch habitat improvement will be expanded, and there also will be enhancements available for on-site carbon storage and for planting at high carbon sequestration rates.

·         New bundles, or suites, of enhancements that are designed to work as a system will be offered. (Farmers can qualify for bonus payments by choosing one of the bundles.)
The precision agriculture bundle for no-till faming, for example, will include four enhancements, including using precision application of pesticides and fertilizer and leaving standing grain crops for wildlife cover. There also will be bundles designed for soil health, pasture, wildlife and forestry.

·         The new ranking system, which replaces the old conservation measurement tool, will allow states and local offices to prioritize applications that most effectively address local resource concerns. That is similar to what is now done in evaluating EQIP applications.

·         Mid-contract revisions will be easier for NRCS to administer, according to Weller. Under existing practice, for example, if a farmer loses his lease on an individual field, NRCS typically cancels the entire contract because the staff can’t separate the contract value of that field from the total ranking score given to the entire operation.
With the new system, “you will know what you are doing in every field, and you will know what you are being paid for per acre in that field,” Weller said. “If you want to modify your operation you can do that.”

·         CSP will continue to reward existing practices as well as the new measures that farmers agree to undertake. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a longtime supporter of CSP, has been concerned that the new CSP would shift the contracts more toward new practices, penalizing farmers who also have been paid for practices they were already employing.
Weller says that won’t be the case. Nationwide, 60 percent of CSP benefits have been directed toward new practices, versus 40 percent for existing ones, and that ratio will continue, he said.
CSP will continue to reward existing practices, “but we think there is so much opportunity for new conservation,” he said.  “Our mission is to advance conservation and assist producers to get new conservation on the ground.”

·         NRCS is making no changes to how it administers the program’s payment limits. An individual producer can receive no more than $40,000 a year.

Ferd Hoefner, NSAC’s policy director, says the agency appears to be making a number of positive revisions, but he’s withholding judgment until all of the details are available.

A key concern for his group has been whether the new assessment system and payment structure will account for the value of the conservation benefits, not just the cost of the practices to producers. He said that conservation benefits would appear to be incorporated into the new ranking system “in a fairly modest way.”

Hoefner praised the additional enhancement bundles that will be offered. “A suite of practices is going to mean more for the environmental practices. That could be a real positive.” Hoefner also is encouraged that the plan will make it possible for producers to assess their payment options online. In the past, he said, NRCS officials have said they couldn’t do that. “If they put enough information so you can calculate your payments, that would be a considerable step forward,” Hoefner said.

White, who ran NRCS from 2009 through 2012 and now manages a conservation consulting firm, says the planned changes represent a major improvement in CSP. “I think NRCS has cracked the code on this. … Theres more options for farmers, more enhancements, more practices, more bundles they can take advantage of. Its 100 times more transparent.”


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