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NSAC Publishes Updated Resources for 2017 CSP Sign-Up Period

November 29, 2016

The Prices converted a portion of their cropland to wetland and installed a riparian buffer of native plants to improve conservation on their Texas farm. Photo credit: USDA.

The Prices converted a portion of their cropland to wetland and installed a riparian buffer of native plants to improve conservation on their Texas farm. Photo credit: USDA.

This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a complete “reinvention” of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest working lands conservation program. While some essential details of the reinvention have yet to be announced by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), it is important that interested farmers and ranchers submit their initial applications by February 3, 2017 to be considered for assistance next year.

CSP is designed to support farmers and ranchers as they actively manage and expand conservation activities on their agricultural land. More than 70 million acres are already enrolled in the program; this year NRCS is authorized to enroll 10 million new acres and to renew up to 12.8 million acres that are under five-year contracts that expire at the end of the fiscal year.

Submitting the initial CSP application is easy. It consists of a simple form that asks for information regarding land ownership, type of production, and contact information. Although farmers can sign up for CSP anytime throughout the year, those who miss the February 3 deadline will not be considered for the program until 2018.

This year, outreach to potential applicants will be particularly important, given the significant changes the program has undergone. NSAC and its 117 member organizations support farmers and ranchers nationwide in their efforts to apply for and participate in CSP.

NRCS undertook the CSP reinvention with the intent of making the program more transparent, flexible, and farmer-friendly. Though NSAC does not support all of the changes made by NRCS, if the goals of increased transparency and flexibility are to be met, it will be critical at a minimum to ensure that potential participants are well aware of the CSP opportunities and application process.

Information Alert and Farmers’ Guide Available

 In order to support farmers as they consider applications to this year’s redesigned version of CSP, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has released a CSP 2017 Information Alert and an updated version of our Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program.  These resources provide the step-by-step sign-up and enrollment information producers need to easily access and benefit from CSP.

The next two months are critical for farmers and ranchers interested in obtaining support for conservation activities on their lands. They will need this time to get up to speed on the program reinvention details and make an assessment about whether the program is right for them and, if so, they must then submit their initial application before February 3, 2017.

Each year NSAC provides free online resources and analysis so that farmers and ranchers can be as informed as possible prior to submitting their initial applications, recognizing that they will need to work closely with NRCS on the details of their contract in the months that follow.

In previous years, the initial application deadline for new contracts has coincided with the deadline for participants whose expiring contracts are set to expire the following year. This year, however, participants who originally enrolled in CSP in 2013 will have a separate deadline by which they need to submit an application indicating their intent to renew for an additional 5-year contract. NRCS has not yet announced the deadline for renewals, but we expect it to be in early spring. NSAC will update and provide additional resources when this information becomes available.

Updated Tools, Resources, and Provisions Explained

NSAC’s 2017 CSP Information Alert includes step-by-step sign-up and enrollment details. The alert also walks farmers through the new changes to the program, including the following updated tools, resources, and provisions:

  • New eligibility tool – A significant component of the 2017 program “reinvention” is the shift away from the Conservation Measure Tool (CMT) to the Conservation Activity Evaluation Tool (CAET), which will be used to determine if applicants are meeting the minimum stewardship threshold requirements to participate in CSP. Based on an applicant’s current level of stewardship, the CAET will identify conservation activities that could be adopted to address additional resource concerns
  • New ranking tool – Instead of replacing the CMT with only one new tool, NRCS has created a separate evaluation tool (through the CAET), a separate ranking tool (the Application, Evaluation, and Ranking Tool (AERT)), and a separate payment schedule. The CSP AERT is a variation on the AERT that is already used within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and will be used to rank eligible applications within local ranking pools, with the highest scoring applications receiving contract offers first.
  • Continuation of the minimum contract payment – Beginning last year, USDA set the minimum contract payment for all successful applicants at $1,500 per year. This is an increase of $500 over the previous $1,000 annual minimum. While the original $1,000 annual minimum floor was only available for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, the new $1,500 is now available to all farmers. The minimum payment limit applies to all new contracts enrolled in 2017, as well as expiring contracts that will renew in 2017.
  • Added flexibility for mid-contract changes – Beginning this year, NRCS will provide added flexibility for mid-contract modifications. This will apply to conservation practice or enhancement changes that might occur due to changing markets or to reflect how the land responds to newly added conservation, as well as to circumstances wherein a producer loses a lease and must subtract land from their CSP contract.
  • Expanded options for enhancements, practices, and bundles – The list of conservation activities for 2017 includes a total of 223 individual conservation enhancements, 74 conservation practices, and 32 bundles (suites of enhancements) that are eligible for CSP. The 2017 redesign of the program includes a direct linkage between conservation practices and enhancements, assigning new enhancement codes that link the base practice to the purpose being addressed. NSAC’s CSP Information Alert includes a detailed illustration of how the new enhancements were restructured and renamed.
  • Redesigned payment structure – Finally, the CSP Information Alert addresses the fact that a major component of the 2017 program reinvention is the restructuring of how CSP payments are determined – including annual payments for improving, maintaining, and managing existing operations and installing and adopting additional conservation activities. Annual payments will be determined by the following components: maintenance (existing activity) payments, additional activity payments, and supplemental payments for resource conserving crop rotations, all of which are described in detail in the CSP Information Alert.

Additional Details Still Needed

While the updates to CSP have been a long time coming, this sign-up window is the first time that potential applicants will be able to access the details of the reinvention. NRCS has posted several tools and the revised conservation activity options online for farmers, but there remain many important additional details that have yet to be made public.

NSAC continues to urge NRCS to make all details of the redesigned program available to applicants well before the February 3 deadline. Reviewing the restructured payments, as well as being able to see and understand the new eligibility and ranking tools will be critical to potential participants’ ability to make informed decisions about their CSP applications.

With the complete release of the reinvention details still pending, NSAC’s CSP Information Alert and Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program are available for free online as tools to help farmers determine if CSP is right for them. NSAC’s detailed Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program includes enrollment guidance, key definitions, explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program. We will continue to provide updates as additional details, including payment schedules and public versions of the eligibility tool, become available.

The CSP Information Alert and the Farmers’ Guide are available for free download on the NSAC website at: https://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs

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