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Conservation Stewardship Program Rules Revised

November 5, 2014


New rules governing the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) were published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on November 5, 2014.

Background

The rules, which make changes to CSP required by the 2014 Farm Bill, were published just in the nick of time.  The 2014 Farm Bill extended NRCS’ authority to administer CSP without publishing new rules for 270 days, at which time the agency’s authority to administer the program would expire.  As you may recall from our post when the Farm Bill expired — expired agency authority leaves the farmers who depend on those programs in the lurch.  Fortunately, the rules issued today – which are effective immediately – avoid this result.  (Note: The authority for new enrollments in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) also expires November 4.  USDA expects to have a interim final rule for EQIP in the Federal Register within a week or so, so the termination of authority will be very temporary.)

Although the CSP Interim Final Rule (IFR) is effective immediately, it also subject to a public comment period, during which time the public – including farmers who have participated or are interested in participating in the program, and the organizations that work with them – can provide comments on the agency’s interpretation of their new authority under the Farm Bill, and other programmatic issues.  The comment period will close in 60 days on January 5. 2015, at which time the agency must consider all comments received before publishing a final rule.

Some Key Issues

NSAC is currently analyzing the rule and will provide more information in the coming weeks.  However, a preliminary analysis reveals the following key issues:

Environmental Outcomes vs. Timing of Adoption of Practices: In the rule, NRCS continues to overemphasize the adoption of new conservation activities relative to the environmental benefits of managing, maintaining, and improving existing conservation activities and systems adopted by farmers prior to enrollment.  The statute provides for both on an equal basis, but the rule and related tools NRCS uses to implement the program reject a focus on environmental outcomes in order to weight the program heavily toward new adoption, thus putting the best stewards of the land at a disadvantage.

Comprehensive Conservation: The rule makes a variety of clarifications that demonstrate the agency’s intent to ensure that CSP remains a comprehensive conservation program, as included in the new statutory language from the 2014 Farm Bill.

Conservation Measurement Tool: The rule follows the Farm Bill directive to remove reference to conservation measurement tools, while clarifying that NRCS retains the discretion to continue using the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) it created to operate the program.  This is a good development, though the ultimate fate of the CMT remains ambiguous.

Comprehensive Conservation Planning: The rule does not provide information regarding NRCS’ thinking on creating a supplemental payment for comprehensive conservation plans, despite the Farm Bill language that clarified that NRCS can and should offer payments for such plans.  We believe the planning payment will be added to the program starting in 2015, though we would have preferred it to be explained in the rule to provide the opportunity for public comment.

Resource-Conserving Crop Rotations: The rule makes the required legislative changes to allow supplemental payments for producers who improve, as well as adopt, resource-conserving crop rotations.  This is a change that NSAC pushed for and we are pleased to see it reflected in the rule.

Minimum Contract Payment: The rule continues the important minimum contract payment for historically underserved producers, but fails to establish a much-needed minimum contract payment to increase the program’s appeal for all small-scale producers engaged in advanced conservation.  The rule also leaves the payment at too low a level.

Beginning Farmers:  The preamble to the rule greatly underestimates the unique difficulties faced by beginning farmers in accessing CSP, and the rule itself proposes no new innovations to work with beginning farmers.

Payment Limit Loophole:  The new IFR unfortunately continues a provision from the old rule that allows farms organized as general partnerships to double their CSP payments, even if only one partner is actively engaged in farming.

Next Steps

These are a few of the key issues that NSAC will be addressing in our comments to NRCS.  NSAC will also be undertaking a public education and outreach campaign to encourage farmers, conservationists, and concerned members of the public to submit comments on these rules.  Stay tuned for more details and further analysis in the coming weeks!


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment


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