NSAC's Blog

Conservation Stewardship Program Update

April 23, 2010

This post provides some basic updates on the status of the nearly completed 2009 sign-up as well as the upcoming 2010 version of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

2009 Sign-up Nearing Completion

Despite sign-up coming late in the year and being rushed, some 21,000 farmers and ranchers applied to enroll 33 million acres in the 2009 iteration of the Conservation Stewardship Program.  USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is still in the process of finalizing contracts with those chosen to participate.  To date, they have signed contracts with farmers and ranchers for over 11 million of the 12.8 million acres available in the 2009 enrollment.  Their intent is to be finished with the 2009 sign-up process by the end of May, with signed contracts with approximately 10,000 farmers and ranchers for the full 12.8 million acres.

Final statistics on the 2009 sign-up cannot be known until the process is completed.  However, based on partial and preliminary information, it appears that about 60 percent of total financial assistance in this round will go to assist farmers and ranchers actively manage and maintain their ongoing advanced conservation systems, with about 40 percent supporting the adoption of new conservation activities.  That type of ratio was expected, especially in the early years of the program as it responds to pent-up demand from strong conservation farmers.  Over time, as it reaches more farmers, the ratio will likely shift.

Water quality and wildlife were the top priority resource concerns nationwide, with soil conservation and soil quality a bit less frequent but still high, and water conservation, energy conservation, and air quality chosen as top issues in a significant, but minority number of watersheds and regions.

We look forward to reporting on a full array of initial sign-up data once the process is closed and detailed information becomes available.

2010 Sign-up Coming Soon

The Obama Administration made a decision to conduct the 2010 sign-up for CSP only after amending the CSP Interim Final Rule and making it a Final Rule.  That process has greatly slowed the process for moving forward with the 2010 sign-up in a timely manner.

Word now is that the final rule is in the final stages of clearance within USDA and will soon be heading to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for their review.  Once received by OMB, they are allowed up to 90 days for rule review, though often do not take that long.

A March sign-on letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack encouraged a faster timeline but also recommended significant changes for the 2010 and future sign-ups.  Though the timeline has not speeded up, there are some tentative indications that some important changes are coming.

For instance, the letter recommended a stronger definition of resource-conserving crop rotations eligible for baseline and supplemental payments, one focused on perennials and forages.  A new, stronger activity sheet for resource-conserving crop rotations along those lines is circulating to State Technical Committees for review.  Discussions of a minimum payment level per contract to encourage small acreage farms to participate are also happening, another recommendation made in the letter.  In addition, it seems likely that in future iterations of the program, income that a farmer chooses to forgo by maintaining conservation practices will be used in calculating CSP payment formulas.

A review of conservation enhancements also will likely eliminate some low cost, low benefit options that had been available in 2009 but detracted from the program.  Whether ranking and payment points will be better calibrated overall to environmental benefits and cost of the activity, however, still remains to be seen.

Even though final decisions on the exact contours of the rule and the sign-up are not available yet, farmers and ranchers can still submit the application form for CSP at their USDA county office now.  However, the more involved part of the sign-up process — filling out the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) that is used to determine eligibility, ranking, and payments — will not happen until after the program details are finalized.

Submitting the short initial application form will signal an interest and intent to participate.  Given how late it already is in the fiscal year, it is advisable for farmers and ranchers to submit the application now so they are on the list to complete the CMT as soon as it becomes available.  Once the rule and sign-up changes are announced, there will likely be a fairly short turnaround time for completing the application process before the agency begins the ranking process.  Therefore, getting started early makes sense.

In future years, there will be more time for farmers and for agency staff to deal with enrollments, but this year, for the last time, the process will be squeezed for time.

We hope to be able to report in greater depth on the new, forthcoming improvements to the program in the near future.  Stay tuned!

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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