NSAC's Blog

Make Your Voice Heard: Conservation Stewardship Program Interim Rule

December 11, 2019

Ranchers implementing rotational grazing strategies. Photo credit: USDA.
Ranchers implementing rotational grazing strategies. Photo credit: USDA.

Careful stewardship of the land and natural resources is a top priority for most family farmers – a deep and abiding attachment to the land that provides for their livelihoods is part of what makes them so good at their jobs. Since 2003, the federal government has provided financial support to farmers who go above and beyond in their stewardship through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

CSP is a competitive program that pays farmers to adopt and maintain regenerative land management measures to improve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. As a working lands conservation program, CSP helps farmers enhance the sustainability of their operations while keeping their land in agricultural production. After nearly two decades of helping farmers across the country build resilience on their farms, CSP is today the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) preeminent whole farm conservation program.

The 2018 Farm Bill made several substantive changes and updates to CSP, which USDA is now interpreting and implementing through their rule-making and public comment process.

On November 12, 2019, USDA published the “CSP Interim Rule,” and will accept public comment through January 13, 2020. In response, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a longtime advocate and defender of CSP, has launched a national comment campaign to ensure that farmers’ and other key stakeholders’ views on this interim rule are heard.

In this post, we delve deeper into what the new rule means for farmers and what you can do to make your voice heard. For more comment templates, resources, and additional advocacy information, see our CSP Comment Campaign page.

Subsequent NSAC posts will provide details about the fiscal year (FY) 2020 CSP enrollment period. Early in the new year, NSAC will also issue our annual CSP Information Alert, which contains all the information farmers and ranchers need to sign-up for CSP or renew their current contracts. For additional details on CSP, please visit NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.

The New Rule in Brief

While Congress writes farm bills, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) writes the rules about how program changes are implemented on the ground. It is vitally important, therefore, that these rules reflect both congressional intent and the interests and recommendations of America’s farmers and ranchers.

Several changes in the CSP Interim Rule track improvements made in the 2018 Farm Bill:

  • Organic farmers will now have their own allocation and funding pool within the program.
  • Raised payment rates for cover cropping, management-intensive rotational grazing, and resource-conserving crop rotations; building soil organic matter added as a requirement for these rotations.
  • Public land can now be included in a contract if it is part of the farm or ranch’s overall operation.
  • Flexibility added for making minor modifications to the conservation plan during the contract period.

The Interim Rule also, however, contains several major problems – some of which flatly ignore the intent of Congress and the law of the land that is the 2018 Farm Bill. The rule is also sparse on many details that would normally be included in updated regulations – according to NRCS, additional program details will be published in their upcoming manual; however, that is unlikely to be publicly available until after the public comment period has closed. Moreover, as is always the case, information on payment schedules (a critically important detail) is separate from rule. NSAC will report on those details and rates once USDA shares the information, likely in the new year.

Ignoring Best Practice Actors

One of the bright spots of the 2018 Farm Bill was that Congress made the CSP application process easier and fairer for those who already practice good conservation. Previously, NRCS used six criteria to identify farmers needing more help in reaching sustainability. Post 2018 Farm Bill, NRCS will now judge applicants in two simple, straightforward ways, measuring the: 

  • Environmental benefits that accrue from actively managing existing conservation activities.
  • Degree to which the adoption of additional conservation activities will increase those benefits.

In the Interim CSP Rule, USDA has flouted the will of Congress by declaring that it will continue judging applications the old way, keeping in place the status quo and favoring farms with lower levels of sustainability instead of best practice actors. Continuing with this faulty ranking schme will fundamentally make CSP unable to fulfill its mission of rewarding good stewardship and paying for ecosystem services. As written, USDA’s interim rule effectively punishes farmers implementing advanced stewardship activities for being ahead of the curve.

NSAC urges NRCS to base the ranking rules for CSP solely on environmental benefits without preferences to favor or disfavor new conservation activities.

Ignoring Long-time Stewards

Any farmer can tell you that good conservation activities cost money. Despite the (sometimes steep) cost, many family farmers implement conservation activities on every available acre of their land because they know that sustainability is as important for their business as it is for the planet. Unlike traditional cost-share programs, CSP was designed by Congress to reward farmers for active management of ongoing conservation activities, as well as the adoption of new conservation enhancements. CSP payments are provided for two purposes: 1) improving, maintaining, and managing existing, ongoing conservation measures, and 2) installing additional conservation measures. These factors should be equally weighted. 

USDA’s Interim CSP Rule is vague on this point, however. The rule even includes discouraging language that says a farmer won’t get any payments on land that does not require additional conservation activities. This means, for example, that in considering an application from a farmer with 400 acres of diligently managed pasture in rotational grazing, USDA would ignore that farmer’s ongoing maintenance costs, forgone income, and the environmental benefits that come from their stewardship. Ignoring preexisting conservation activities sends the wrong message to those who have been leading the charge on good land management and risks reversing years of progress in conservation agriculture.

NSAC urges NRCS to base payments solely on costs, forgone income, and environmental benefits, without any artificial weighting of payments to favor new or ongoing conservation activities. We also recommend that all land uses on a farm that exceed NRCS’ sustainability criteria should be eligible for payment.

Ignoring the Need for Long-Term Investment

The 2018 Farm Bill encourages long-term stewardship by allowing farmers to continue applying for CSP as long as they continue to improve conservation on their farms. Prior to this, farmers had been capped at receiving CSP payments for ten years (two five-year contracts). The 2018 Farm Bill made this important change in recognition of the fact that the benefits of conservation activities are not restricted to a ten-year window – sustainability is an investment in the land and natural resources that continues to generate a return long after activities are implemented.

Congress saw the limitations of the existing system, and agreed to change CSP’s enrollment limit so that as long as they submit a successful renewal application, farmers can continue to receive support for the good work they’re doing on their farms in perpetuity. Unfortunately, however, this change came with some strings. Longtime stewards would be eligible in perpetuity, but they would now have to compete to remain in the program.

In the Interim Rule, USDA goes completely off script by limiting farmers to a one-time renewal – a direct contradiction to the instructions from Congress. Moreover, NRCS has signaled its intent to artificially restrict the number of renewals they will make, and the agency has yet to indicate whether and how it will credit CSP farmers for conservation advances made during their previous contracts.

Conservation is not a one-and-done deal; it takes years of hard work, patience, and attention to truly see the benefits it provides. Reorienting federal farm payments toward paying for ecosystem services requires ongoing support for conservation.

NSAC urges NRCS to base contract renewals on total environmental benefits generated, so the program continues to reward the best stewards. We recommend that NRCS remove its one-time restriction, and fully credit renewal applications for reaching sustainable levels on priority resources concerns during the previous contract period.

Additional Concerns

The aforementioned are some, but not all of the issues with the interim rule. For instance, while Congress limited five-year CSP contracts to awards of $200,000, UDSA continues to take it upon itself to double that amount for very large farms organized as general partnerships. Additionally, the interim rule – for the first time in CSP history – opens program participation to landlords. Importantly, this proposed change does not specifically restrict cash rent landlords; however, cash rent landlords are restricted from participation in USDA commodity programs. NSAC urges the elimination of USDA’s gratuitous payment doubling, and recommends the inclusion of a clear prohibition against payments to cash rent landlords.

As part of the interim rule comment period, NRCS is also accepting feedback on how to allocate CSP funds to the states. With less total CSP funding available post-2018 Farm Bill, this is now a bigger issue than in the past. NSAC recommends a pro rata allocation of dollars based on the ratio of each state’s agricultural land, weighted by land use type, relative to national totals. We believe this is the fairest approach, one that neither favors nor disfavors any particular region of the country.

Act Now, Make Your Voice Heard

NSAC is disappointed that USDA misses the mark on several key issues in the CSP Interim Rule. The good news is, there’s still time for farmers, ranchers, and “ag-vocates” like you to weigh in!

NRCS will accept public comments through January 13, 2019. Comments must be submitted online

After they review and take into consideration public comments, NRCS will develop a permanent final rule that will govern the program for years to come. This chance to influence the future of a vital program like CSP should not be passed up! So, how can you help?

Reach out to USDA to let them know why CSP is important to you, your community, and the nation. In your comment, be sure to point out how the flaws in the interim rule could hamper our work toward cleaner air and water, more productive land, and more plentiful wildlife.

NSAC has provided sample materials at this link to help you get started on your comments. Please note, it is important to personalize your comment – NRCS will read every single submission, and unique comments have the most impact!

For more details, you can read the full CSP Interim Rule here.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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