Conservation Stewardship Program

Important Update:

Please note that the Grassroots Guide has not yet been updated to reflect changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill, which was passed and signed into law in December 2018. We are in the process of updating the Guide and expect to publish an updated version in the spring of 2019. In the meantime, please use this guide for basic information about programs and important resources and links for more information, but check with USDA for any relevant program changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill. Also, check out our blog series covering highlights from the new farm bill. 

Rewarding farmers for adopting and managing advanced conservation systems

Farmers and ranchers are important managers of our shared air, water, and soil resources, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) recognizes and rewards this critical role. CSP is an innovative program for working farms, built on the belief that we must enhance natural resource and environmental protection as we simultaneously produce profitable food, fiber, and energy. By providing comprehensive conservation assistance to whole farms, CSP offers farmers the opportunity to earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities like cover crops, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips, and the transition to organic farming – even while they work their lands for production.

Learn More About CSP!

Program Basics

 CSP covers more acres of working farm and ranch lands on a multi-year basis than any other federal conservation program. It is a comprehensive working lands conservation program designed to help farmers and ranchers protect and improve natural resources and the environment on productive and profitable farms. Through CSP, farmers and ranchers receive technical and financial assistance to actively manage and maintain existing conservation systems and to implement additional conservation activities on land in agricultural production.

CSP targets funding to:

  • Address particular resources of concern in a given state or region, such as water quality or soil erosion;
  • Assist farmers and ranchers to improve soil, water, and air quality;
  • Provide increased biodiversity and wildlife and pollinator habitat;
  • Sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change; and
  • Conserve water and energy.

Farmers and ranchers anywhere in the country can apply for CSP funding every year at any time of the year. Enrollment is competitive and, typically once each year, NRCS will rank applications and develop contracts with those farmers and ranchers who have the highest-ranking applications until funding for that ranking period is exhausted. If you submit an application after that year’s cutoff, NRCS will keep your application and consider it in the next round. The 2014 Farm Bill provides sufficient funding to enroll 10 million additional acres in CSP each year in the future, on top of the 60 million acres already enrolled under the previous farm bill. 

Payments – CSP pays producers to improve, maintain, and actively manage conservation activities in place at the time of application and to adopt new conservation activities during the life of the five-year contract. Payment amounts are determined by multiple factors, including the costs incurred (for planning, design, materials, installation, labor, management, maintenance or training), income forgone, and expected conservation benefits. Additional factors include the:

  • Extent to which priority resource concerns will be addressed;
  • Level of stewardship in place at the time of application; and
  • Degree to which conservation activities will be integrated across the entire farm.

Farmers willing to adopt resource-conserving crop rotations that include cover crops, forages, or green manures can receive special supplemental payments. Payments are also available to assist in the development of a comprehensive conservation plan.

Payments are capped at $40,000 per year, or $200,000 over the life of the 5-year contract. Nationwide, payments and technical assistance average $18 per acre. However, payment amounts vary greatly, from lower-cost rangeland improvement contracts to mid-range pasture contracts to higher-range cropland contracts. Since 2016, all CSP contracts have a minimum annual payment of $1,500, should their otherwise assigned payment amount be less than that. Annual payments are made after October 1 every year.

Contract Renewals – All CSP contracts last for five years, with an option to renew. Renewals for another five years are granted if the farmer or rancher has met the terms of the preceding contract and is willing to adopt additional conservation activities or solve additional resource concerns. Farmers or ranchers should work with their NRCS office to outline their existing conservation activities and new proposed new activities.

Ranking Criteria – The CSP Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT), filled out by the farmer working directly with the local NRCS staff, is used to rank proposals and determine payment rates. The questions and conservation activity choices in the CMT are available electronically on NRCS websites and from the local office.

The CSP ranking system is based on how much farmers and ranchers have already done, and how much more they are willing to do, to address natural resource concerns. Primary ranking factors are:

  1. The extent of baseline conservation on the ground relative to the priority resource concerns at the time of enrollment;
  2. The degree to which proposed new conservation activities address the priority resources and improve conservation outcomes over baseline levels;
  3. The total number of priority resource concerns addressed in the contract, and the extent to which those proposed will meet or exceed the stewardship threshold;
  4. The extent to which other priority natural resource concerns, in addition to those identified as priority resource concerns for that state or region, are addressed;
  5. The extent to which the environmental benefits from the contract are provided at the least cost relative to other similarly beneficial contracts; and
  6. The extent to which priority resource concerns will be addressed on land transitioning from CRP to CSP.


 All private agricultural land, including cropland, pasture, and rangeland, is eligible to enroll in CSP.

The 2014 Farm Bill now allows for a seamless transition from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to CSP so that landowners with expiring CRP contracts can enroll in CSP during the last year of their CRP contract.

Eligible land includes all acres of an agricultural operation under the effective control of a farmer or rancher, whether or not it is contiguous, and whether it is owned or rented. If land is not owned, a producer may be required to show that they have control over the property for the contact term as evidenced in a lease or rental agreement or a simple non-binding statement from the landowner. Applicants must enroll all acres that they operate, owned and rented.

To qualify for CSP, farmers and ranchers must satisfy several criteria designed to address natural resource concerns that are designated as a priority for a particular state or region. At least five priority resource concerns will be selected for each state or region in the country. Typically, NRCS State Conservationists select the priority resource concerns either for their state as a whole or for each major watershed or eco-region in the state. Selecting priority resource concerns is done in consultation with State Technical Committees and Local Working Groups, which are subcommittees of the State Technical Committees. See below, or contact your local NRCS office, to learn more about state technical committees and local working groups.

Under a CSP contract, farmers and ranchers must demonstrate that they:

  • Are currently meeting or exceeding the stewardship threshold (a standard that NRCS sets for improving a natural resource’s long-term sustainability) for at least two priority resource concerns; and
  • Will meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for at least one additional priority resource concern by the end of the five-year contract period.

The contract will specify the new conservation activities that the producer agrees to install or adopt, and the existing conservation activities that the producer will maintain, manage, and improve.

Special priority is given to beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers to encourage their participation in CSP and their adoption of conservation practices on their farms. The farm bill requires NRCS to set-aside 5 percent of acres enrolled in CSP to be made available for beginning farmers and ranchers and another 5 percent of acres for socially disadvantaged producers. These two pools of applicants will compete for funding amongst other beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, but not with farmers as a whole – thereby increasing their chances of securing a CSP contract.

Within these set-asides, preference is to be given to veteran farmers. Any set-aside funds or acres that are not used by a certain date during the fiscal year (to be determined by the Secretary of Agriculture) will be re-pooled so that they can be used by other producers in the programs.

The Program in Action

CSP is currently the largest federal conservation program by acreage. Nearly 60 million acres of crop, forest, and pasture, and rangeland are currently enrolled in the program – accounting for nearly seven percent of farm and ranch land nationwide, a figure that will grow each year. For reference, this means that the total number of acres enrolled in CSP as of 2013 is slightly more than the area of Minnesota, or twice the size of Pennsylvania, with more to come.

From 2009 – 2015, NRCS obligated approximately $5 billion to CSP contract-holders across the country.

Since 2009, CSP contracts have helped farmers and ranchers:

  • Improve cattle forage and soil health by implementing rotational grazing systems;
  • Protect wildlife and pollinators by installing wildlife friendly fencing and escape routes in water troughs, and improving pollinator habitat; and
  • Enhance soil health through resource-conserving crop rotations;
  • Adopt and maintain nutrient and sediment management systems to improve water quality.

Read more about farmers and ranchers that have benefited from CSP:

How to Apply and Program Resources

CSP sign up is continuous throughout the year, which means farmers can submit applications to enroll to their local NRCS office at any time during the year. However, applications are ranked and contracts entered at the state level just once each year. Typically, NRCS announces in the winter that they are going to be ranking applications and applicants then have a few months to submit the initial request to enroll. This means if the deadline to apply for that year is, for example, February 1, and a farmer turns in an application on February 2, the application will not be considered until the next year’s ranking. Timing can vary each year, so interested farmers and ranchers should contact their local NRCS office for more information on how to apply.

Additional Resources

Read about the latest news on CSP on our blog!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

The precursor to CSP, the Conservation Security Program, was first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill. This program evolved into the Conservation Stewardship Program in the 2008 Farm Bill, and was reauthorized in the most recent 2014 Farm Bill. One of the most significant changes to CSP in the 2008 Farm Bill was that CSP became available in all states and counties each and every year. That structure is preserved in the 2014 Farm Bill version of CSP. The evolution from the Conservation Security Program to the Conservation Stewardship Program involved many substantial and important programmatic changes, which you can read about in our 2015 Farmers’ Guide to CSP.

The 2014 Farm Bill made a handful of significant changes to the program. In particular, the bill made changes to program funding, ranking criteria, renewal requirements, and supplemental payment options through resource-conserving crop rotations and comprehensive conservation planning.

CSP Funding – Most notably, the 2014 Farm Bill reduces the annual enrollment from 12.8 million acres to 10 million acres. CSP funding is allocated not by a specific dollar amount, but rather by the amount necessary to enroll a specified number of acres. For the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA was allocated the funding necessary to enroll 12.8 million acres each year of the bill. The 2014 Farm Bill reduced the acreage to 10 million acres each year, which as a result also reduces overall program spending relative to what would have been the case with an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill.

Conservation Stewardship Program Annual Funding

Fiscal Year Total Farm Bill Mandatory Funding (Congressional estimate – 4/14/14) (millions)
2014 $1,162
2015 $1,232
2016 $1,373
2017 $1,550
2018 $1,713
5 yr total $7,030
10 yr total $17,272

It is important to note that Congress does at times pass appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program at less than provided by the farm bill, in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program.  Therefore, the CSP acreage enrollment for a given year could be less than 10 million acres should the Appropriations Committees decide to raid the farm bill to fund other programs under its jurisdiction.

Ranking CriteriaThe 2014 Farm Bill also makes changes to the ranking criteria, adding a new ranking factor that will assign ranking points to applicants who are seeking to enroll expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land in CSP. The bill includes a new option for landowners with land in expiring CRP contract to seamlessly enroll in CSP during their final CRP year.

The ranking criteria were also modified to shift the focus from macro- to micro-resource targeting by eliminating reference to “resource concerns” and instead making distinctions based on “applicable” priority resource concerns and “other” priority resource concerns. This effect of this shift remains to be seen; the concern is that this emphasis on micro-resources could result in a subversion of the intent that CSP provide a comprehensive approach to addressing natural resource concerns. The 2014 bill also provides that the purpose of CSP is to “encourage producers to address priority resource concerns and improve and conserve the quality and condition of natural resources in a comprehensive manner.” This new language indicates that the transition to more fully integrating micro-resource concerns into the program should be achieved in a manner consistent with the long-term objective of the program, which remains to address all relevant resource concerns.

Another important change to the ranking criteria relates to the third ranking factor, which evaluates applicants based on “the number of applicable priority resource concerns proposed to be treated to meet or exceed the stewardship threshold by the end of the contract.” The Farm Bill clarifies that this ranking factor does not just look at the number of priority resource concerns that an applicant proposes to treat, but also the extent to which the conservation activity proposed for the priority resource concerns will meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for that priority resource concern at the expiration of the contract.” It is clear that this ranking criterion requires more than just a proposed number of priority resource concerns – it also requires meaningful and verifiable levels of treatment.

Renewal RequirementsThe 2014 Farm Bill also made some changes to the language authorizing USDA to renew CSP contracts at the end of the five-year period. A producer who entered into a CSP contract under the 2008 Farm Bill must have been meeting the stewardship threshold for one resource concern at the time of the contract offer, and must meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for at least one additional resource concern by the end of the contract period. Under the new requirements of the 2014 Farm Bill, a producer must be meeting or exceeding the stewardship thresholds for two priority resource concerns to enter into an initial contract, and meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for at least one additional priority resource concern by the end.  To that end, NRCS is requiring the adoption of at least one new enhancement in the renewal contract.

Comprehensive Conservation PlanningThe 2014 Farm Bill retained the existing definition of “conservation activity” from the 2008 Farm Bill as including “planning needed to address a priority resource concern.”  However, the 2014 Farm Bill was accompanied by an important clarification in the Managers’ Statement, which states that planning has an inclusive plain language meaning to encompass, for example, conservation planning. Moreover, the language states that, in developing a conservation plan, a producer incurs significant costs in time, labor, management, and foregone income. While this important clarification authorizes NRCS to provide financial and technical assistance for producers who want to undertake comprehensive conservation planning as part of their overall CSP contract, NRCS has not made this critical provision available for participants.

Resource-Conserving Crop RotationsThe 2014 Farm Bill continues the supplemental payment option for Resource-Conserving Crop Rotations (RCCRs). However, the 2014 Farm Bill language modifies the availability of supplemental payments for RCCRs for producers who adopt or improve RCCRs. RCCRs are recognized as one of the most integrated and effective systems for addressing resources concerns, and this critical language modification ensure that producers are eligible for this payment options for newly adopted RCCRs, and for the modification or improvement of an existing RCCR already in practice.

Authorizing Language

Section 2101 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Subchapter B of chapter 2 of subtitle D of title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985 [16 U.S.C. 3838d et seq.]

Last updated in October 2016.