April 13, 2017
Rick Story never imagined he’d be named one of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Farmers of the Year; but considering his extensive use of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) over the last four years, it’s easy to see why he was chosen. A pilot by training, at first Rick was more comfortable flying a plane than running a farm. But thanks to the technical and financial assistance provided by CSP, he’s successfully been able to embrace both roles, embodying exactly what it means to take care of his land from the ground up.
The Threat of Program Cuts
CSP rewards tens of thousands of farmers across the country, who just like Rick, are dedicated to implementing conservation activities on their farms. Through the program, farmers can receive financial support to maintain existing conservation practices, as well as to implement new, additional practices on working lands. CSP is the largest federal conservation program by acreage, with more than 80 million acres of crop, forest, pasture, and rangeland enrolled in the program. The program offers support for a wide array of conservation efforts, including but not limited to the implementation of: cover crops, ecologically based pest management, and buffer strips.
Farmers know how beneficial CSP can be. In fact, the demand for the program has been so strong that there were more than twice as many farmer applicants in 2016 than CSP could support with its current level of funding. The 2014 Farm Bill cut more than $6 billion from farm bill conservation programs, which included significant cuts to CSP. By pulling critical funding from on-farm conservation programs like CSP, thousands of eligible farmers across the country have been unable to add cost saving and input reducing conservation activities to their operations. If disinvestment from on-farm conservation programs continues, our nation’s food security, as well as the productive capacity of our land and natural resources, will certainly be put at risk.
Transforming land and livelihoods
In 2016, extreme drought conditions across Alabama left many farmers without access to the water supply they needed to support their animals and crops. Rick Story’s cattle farm wasn’t immune to the impact of extreme weather, but he was protected from some of its most damaging effects because of the conservation practices CSP helped him to put in place.
“We’re well on the way back to where we were before the drought because of the CSP practices we adopted,” says Rick.
As a beginning farmer, the opportunity to work with and learn directly from NRCS staff was critical to Rick’s success with conservation activities. Rick started with CSP in 2013 because he was seeking better ways to keep the cattle and the soil on his 300 acres grass-fed beef operation healthy and happy.
CSP introduced Rick to rotational grazing methods, which has helped him to prevent over-grazing and kept him from exhausting his grass supply too early. By using rotational grazing techniques, Rick has been able to provide his cattle with fresh grass all year round, instead of having to supplement with dry, stored hay – many Alabama farmers have to rely on stored hay to feed their herds for up to five months out of the year.
“Cows will waste 60 percent of the grass by walking around,” Rick says. “When you control where they eat, instead of letting them graze all over, you better utilize your grasses and preserve it even into cold months.”
Rick uses CSP in a number of ways to improve his farm’s operation, not just for rotational grazing. One of the other enhancements Rick has found success with through CSP has been learning how to move away from using commercial fertilizers. CSP helped Rick find ways to reduce his input costs by redistributing cow manure (a free and abundant resource) on his pasture and planting clover to preserve soil nitrogen.
“In the areas where we have done these practices, you can see a big difference in the soil quality and grass production,” says Rick.
By putting the soil first, Rick is supporting the health of his farm from the ground up. He’s now so in tune with his soil health, in fact, that one of his pilot students has taken to calling Rick a “grass farmer” instead of a “cattle farmer”.
Sharing the knowledge
Success with CSP is as much about learning as it is about sharing and spreading knowledge. CSP, like many other NRCS programs, doesn’t just provide knowledge; the program also focuses on connecting farmers directly with experts and with one another so that knowledge can be passed on indefinitely.
Working with NRCS, Rick was provided with technical assistance, as well as important connections to Auburn University and local county extension offices, who helped him to implement the conservation practices on his ranch. Through conferences, grazing clinics, and master cattleman classes, Rick learned how to identify the best practices for his particular needs, type of operation, and geography.
Today, Rick has become so successful at implementing conservation activities on his farm that the Extension agents affiliated with Auburn University have started using Rick’s farm as a model site for their grazing clinics. Rick himself has also transformed, from student to teacher. He now regularly hosts clinics for interested visitors from Auburn University, the Alabama County Cooperative Extension System, and his fellow farmers.
“It’s overwhelming for someone to start in the cattle business,” Rick says. “The cost of it holds many people back. But the education is priceless. CSP teaches you how to take care of your land and make it profitable.”
The opportunity to learn and connect with farmers and other experts in agriculture is especially critical for beginning farmers, who may be struggling to decide whether or not farming is a viable career for them. Rick knows that in order to keep the farming and ranching industry sustainable into the future, he and other experienced farmers will need to help educate and encourage new farmers to adopt on-farm conservation practices.
“For somebody to stay in [farming], it has to be profitable,” says Rick. “CSP is making farms profitable for the next generation, and we have to encourage that.”
Rick plans to renew his five-year CSP contract and continue protecting his land and supporting the transfer of conservation knowledge. However, funding cuts could put Rick’s work, and the work of many farmers like him, at risk if these programs are not protected during the annual appropriations process.
NSAC fights to protect farm bill conservation programs
As one of the lead architects of the original CSP, the National Sustainable Agriculture Committee (NSAC) is committed to fighting for a robust suite of on-farm conservation, training, and technical support programs. Every year during the appropriations process, NSAC fights to protect programs like CSP from back door policy techniques known as CHIMPS (changes to mandatory program spending), which are used by congressional appropriators to steal funds from farm bill conservation programs and re-appropriate them to fill funding gaps elsewhere.
We will also continue to fight for these and other farmer support programs through the farm bill, which is (traditionally) reauthorized every five years. For a preview of NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill priorities check out our blog, and stay tuned to our website for future updates and opportunities to engage.