February 4, 2016
Farmers and ranchers interested in enrolling in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) this year have until March 31 to submit their initial applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). USDA will enroll 10 million acres of farm and ranch land in the program this year, with payments to farmers and ranchers of over three-quarters of a billion dollars over the next five years.
March 31 is also the deadline by which initial applications are needed from farmers with expiring 2012-2016 contracts if they want to renew them for another five years. Some 12 million acres already in the program are eligible for renewal this year.
“The Conservation Stewardship Program is one of our most popular programs with producers because it results in real change on the ground by boosting soil and air quality, conserving clean water and enhancing wildlife habitat,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “With this investment, we’ll be able to build on the already record number of acres enrolled in USDA’s conservation programs, enabling producers to achieve higher levels of conservation and adopt new and emerging conservation technologies on farms, ranches and forests.”
Easy First Step
The initial step to apply to CSP is easy. Farmers and ranchers can go to their local NRCS office and submit the initial application to enroll, which is a simple form that asks for basic information regarding land ownership, type of production, and contact information.
While applicants can sign up anytime throughout the year for CSP, producers should submit applications by March 31 to ensure they are considered for enrollment in 2016. This year’s deadline carries particular significance, as a major program overhaul is scheduled for 2017. In order for producers to enroll in CSP under its existing structure, ranking process, and current conservation activities, they must apply before the March 31 deadline.
Once a farmer or rancher’s initial application is accepted by NRCS, they are then scored based on current and planned future conservation activities. If applicants meet acceptable conservation levels, they become eligible to compete in a ranking process that determines who will receive contracts. NRCS works down through the list of eligible applicants until acreage allocated to the particular state for that particular year runs out.
2012 Contracts Up for Renewal
March 31 is also the deadline for CSP contract holders who enrolled in 2012 to renew. CSP contracts last for five years and can be renewed for an additional five years, extending and building upon their previous conservation efforts and current level of stewardship.
Existing CSP contracts enrolled in 2012 will expire later this year if they are not renewed by March 31. Producers should act now to ensure a seamless transition into another five-year contract and avoid any lapse in payments.
Approximately 12 million acres and 8,000 contracts are up for renewal this year. Click here to see the number of contracts and acres set to expire in each state. The map below shows the total number of acres that were originally enrolled in 2012, which are set to expire at the end of the year if not renewed before March 31.
In 2014 and 2015, approximately 75 percent of expiring CSP acres were renewed in the program, and we at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) hope to see renewal rates that meet or exceed the first two re-enrollment periods.
Producers should be receiving a letter from their local NRCS office very soon about the opportunity to renew your contract for another five-year period. Renewal applications must also be received by March 31 to ensure a seamless transition into their next contract without a lapse in payments.
More Acreage to be Enrolled in 2016
Compared to 2015, NRCS is able to enroll an additional 2.3 million acres in the program this year, which covers nearly all 10 million acres dictated by the 2014 Farm Bill. Nearly full funding is possible because CSP was not limited through the annual appropriations process. In the past few years these cuts have reduced CSP acreage levels, but thankfully there are no cuts this year.
This year’s increased funding for the program is a significant opportunity to better meet the high demand from eligible CSP applicants, which continues to exceed available funding. As a result of this year’s funding increase, we expect that approximately 2,000 more producers will be able to enroll in CSP compared to last year’s levels.
Combined with the more than 12 million acres that are up for renewal, the 2016 sign up-window has direct implications for more than 20 million acres of land in agricultural production.
Enhanced Opportunity for Small Acreage Farms
The 2016 enrollment period and program structure mirrors the 2015 sign-up period in terms of the application ranking process, payment rates, and available conservation activities, but this year’s announcement also includes an important change that benefits smaller acreage farms. In order to improve access for small acreage, high value operations, USDA will now set a $1,500 annual minimum contract payment floor. NSAC has long encouraged the agency to adopt this proposal in order to level the playing field for smaller operations.
This year’s revision represents an increase of $500 over the previous $1,000 annual minimum. The $1,000 annual minimum floor moreover, was only available for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, whereas the new $1,500 annual minimum is now available to all farmers. The new range for CSP payments per farm per year is between $1,500 and $40,000.
NSAC applauds NRCS for making this change to better reward superior environmental performance for all operations, regardless of their size. It is important that all of agriculture has a fair opportunity to be part of the solution to critical environmental issues.
More Resources Available!
In order to support producers going through the application process, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has released its CSP Information Alert, with step-by-step sign-up and enrollment details, including a complete list of all conservation activities that enrollees will have to choose from as they consider their CSP options.
In addition to the Information Alert, NSAC has also published a more detailed Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which includes enrollment guidance, key definitions, explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program.
The CSP Information Alert and The Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program are available for free download on the NSAC website at: http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications.
Printed copies of the Farmers’ Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies, email NSAC at firstname.lastname@example.org.