March 31, 2017
Farmers and ranchers with expiring Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) acres have until May 5 to renew their contracts for an additional five years. Nearly 7,000 farmers, ranchers, and forest owners across the country enrolled 9.5 million acres in this comprehensive conservation program in 2013. These contracts will expire from the program if they are not renewed by the May 5 deadline.
CSP, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to help them actively manage and maintain existing conservation systems, as well as to implement additional conservation activities on land in production (also known as “working lands”). CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program, with more than 80 million acres currently enrolled. Through CSP, participants can receive assistance in improving the soil, water, air, and habitat quality on working lands; they can also use CSP support to address water quantity and energy conservation issues.
CSP’s conservation practices, including installing and managing resource-conserving crop rotations and cover crops, have a proven track record of helping farmers to increase crop yield and farm resilience while also enhancing on farm soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat. Reaping the full benefits of some conservation activities can take time, however. By extending CSP contracts for an additional five years, producers will have the opportunity to continue to build upon and improve their stewardship activities. On top of the environmental benefits, renewing means there won’t be any gaps in their annual CSP payments.
Important Updates for CSP Renewals
Last year, NRCS made significant changes to CSP. These changes, termed the CSP “reinvention,” were made in an effort to make the program more transparent, flexible, and most importantly, more farmer-friendly. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) put together a blog post and a detailed CSP Information Alert to assist applicants in navigating the “reinvented” program.
In previous years, NRCS has set a uniform sign-up deadline, with new contracts and contract renewals coming due at the same time. This year, however, there is one deadline for new sign-ups and a different deadline for renewals (May 5).
Farmers and ranchers who originally enrolled in CSP in 2013 should be aware of the major changes made to the program through the reinvention, including: (1) a new eligibility tool to determine if applicants meet the minimum stewardship threshold requirements to participate in CSP; (2) a new ranking tool to assess which applicants should receive priority in establishing CSP contracts (Note: only new contracts enrolling for the first time will be ranked, as long as the renewing contract meets the eligibility criteria, it will be renewed); and (3) expanded options for enhancements, practices, and bundles. To read more about the CSP reinvention, check out NSAC’s blog and Information Alert.
Acting Deputy Agriculture Secretary Michael Young highlighted the benefits of contract renewal to existing CSP participants in an announcement yesterday:
“The changes made to CSP are providing even greater opportunities for stewardship-minded producers across the country to participate and bring their conservation efforts to a higher level. The new tools and methods for evaluating operations, expanded options to address the producer’s conservation and business objectives, and the focus on local resource priorities have resulted in a 30 percent increase in applications for this widely popular program.”
CSP contract holders renewing this year also have the opportunity to benefit from a new minimum payment, which was not available when they first enrolled in 2013. Beginning last year, NRCS set the minimum contract payment for all successful CSP participants at $1,500. NSAC had long advocated that this change was needed to level the playing field for smaller, diversified operations because CSP calculates its payments using total acreage (which tends to disadvantage smaller and diversified operations). This is a big win for small acreage farmers, including specialty crop growers, because it ensures that the program properly rewards superior environmental stewardship – regardless of the size of the operation. CSP contract holders who enrolled in 2013 and received a payment under $1,500 are now eligible for that minimum payment.
How to Renew Expiring Contracts
CSP contracts last for five years and can be renewed for an additional five years as long as farmers have met the terms of their initial contract. Farmers must also agree to build upon their previous stewardship and conservation efforts by either: (1) adopting at least two additional priority resource concerns; (2) or exceeding the stewardship threshold of at least two existing priority resource concerns by the end of the renewed contract period.
The map below highlights the regional breakdown of expiring contracts. The dark green portions show the areas with the highest concentrations of CSP acres are set to expire if not renewed by May 5. For more insight on the exact number of acres and contracts set to expire in each state, click here.
If a current CSP contract holder for some reason allows their initial contract to expire, they can apply for an entirely new contract; however, doing so is more complicated and more competitive and, without opting for the seamless renewal process, they would have a gap between payments for their first and second contracts.
NSAC will provide updated resources with guidance on contract renewals in the weeks ahead.