Farmers and ranchers across the country have less than one month to sign up for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest working lands program. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that the deadline for applicants to submit an initial application for CSP, in order to be considered for the program is May 10, 2019. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) urges farmers and ranchers to submit an initial application by the deadline in order to be considered this year.
NSAC has published an updated CSP Information Alert, which includes information about the application process, available conservation activities, and explains what the farm bill changes mean for the 2019 enrollment period. In general, the 2019 sign-up largely mirrors last year’s sign-up period, with a few important farm bill changes going immediately into effect.
Below we provide an overview of the application process, and breakdown the key changes that are in place for the 2019 CSP sign-up.
How to Apply
The initial process to apply for CSP is simple. First, before the May 10 deadline, applicants must complete and submit a short and simple application form, NRCS Form CPA 1200. This is the same, generic three-page form that is used for all NRCS conservation programs that offer financial assistance to farms and ranchers, and it is available online or at your local NRCS office. It is fairly quick and easy to fill out, though take special note of the second point below, as it has been a barrier for some producers in the past.
Additionally, applicants must have a farm record number established with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), to include all agricultural or private forest land in the operation. Applicants must also have control of that land for the five-year term of the CSP contract. If applicants don’t already have an FSA number, they’ll need to first go to a local FSA office to establish a farm record before submitting a CSP application.
It’s important to note that previously, to apply as a business entity for CSP, an applicant needed to have a Data Universal Number System (DUNS) number, which is a unique number used to identify a farm business, as well as a current registration for the System for Award Management (SAM),. This requirement was removed in the FY 2018 agriculture appropriations bill, thereby simplifying the contracting process for participants and staff.
Following the submission of an initial application (NRCS Form CPA 1200), applicants will work with NRCS to complete the tools to evaluate management systems and natural resources on the operation’s land. More information on the application, evaluation, and ranking processes is available in NSAC’s CSP Information Alert.
Total Funding Available in FY19
This year’s CSP sign-up is the first under the 2018 Farm Bill, which converted CSP from an acreage based to a dollar based program. For FY 2019, the farm bill authorized $700 million in funding for new CSP contracts, exclusive of the ongoing funding for the more than 50,000 contracts that are currently enrolled in the program.
A portion of that $700 million will go towards contracts in the Grassland Conservation Initiative, which was established in the farm bill within CSP to provide payments for farms that had previously received commodity program payments for base acres that had been converted entirely to grass-based agriculture, using the planting flexibility provisions in the commodity title of the farm bill, for the past decade or longer. Congress decided as part of the new farm bill that these acres are no longer eligible for commodity payments. As a way to partially compensate these farmers, they can now opt to enroll in CSP for 5 years at a set rate of $18 per acre. USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) will be reaching out directly to eligible landowners this year to inform them that they will no longer be eligible for commodity payments but instead have this one-time option to enroll in CSP.
On top of the $700 million in funding available for new CSP contracts, there is also unused “carryover” funding available from previous years, which the farm bill authorizes to be used to cover the transitional payments for the contracts described in the renewals section below. The exact amount of funding available for new contracts in FY 2019 will be dependent on how much funding is obligated for the Grassland Conservation Initiative, which will be subtracted from the $700 million, as well as how much carryover funding is leftover, which will be added to the $700 million.
The 2018 Farm Bill modified the process through which participants with existing CSP contracts renew their five-year CSP contracts for an additional contract. Previously, CSP participants with expiring contracts could opt to renew their contract for an additional five-year period and be guaranteed a new contract so long as they met the terms of the original contract and agreed to adopt additional conservation as part of the next contract. Participants can still apply to renew expiring contracts, but they must compete for the same total pot of funding as new contracts. While this does make it less of a guarantee that a renewal can be secured, conservation benefits achieved during an initial contract will be considered for those applying to renew, and those gains should make a renewal application extremely competitive within the total ranking pool.
NRCS is now in the process of transitioning over from the old renewals process to the changes made in the farm bill, and the farm bill allows them to make contract extensions during this period of transition. Participants who originally signed up for CSP in FY 2014 would have ordinarily had the chance to renew last year in order to sign a new contract that would begin in FY 2019. However, the expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill in September of last year without an extension of authority left NRCS unable to move forward with the renewals process for expiring contracts. In order to mitigate the impact of the program’s lapse on producers, NRCS allowed farmers with expiring CSP contracts to extend their contracts through June of 2019. This did not provide participants any additional payments, but did maintain their enrollment in CSP, which meant that producers also retained their eligibility for future renewals.
The new farm bill made those 2014 contracts eligible for a yearlong extension, this time with an additional year of payments. This will give NRCS time to have the new renewals process in place and those contract holders will be able to apply to renew in 2020 before their contracts expire. Accepted participants will still be able to reenroll without a gap in contract payments. Participants who think they are eligible for a one-year extension should reach out their local NRCS office for more information. The same option for a one-year extension will also be made available for contracts that were originally signed in FY 2015 and are set to expire at the end of 2019.
Increased Payments Available
One of the major wins in the 2018 Farm Bill was the increasing of payments authorized for conservation activities like cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and advanced grazing management. We are pleased that NRCS will be able to offer the increased payment rates for cover crops and resource-conserving crop rotations, beginning with the FY 2019 sign-up.
For cover crop based activities, this means that the payment rate will be 125 percent of the otherwise determined payment, and for resource-conserving crop rotations, it will be 150 percent of that rate. This is a major improvement to ensure that the program supports the most effective conservation activities that benefit soil health, water quality, and other critical resource concerns. The farm bill also authorized an increased rate of 150 percent for advance grazing management conservation activities, including management-intensive rotational grazing. NRCS will need to do additional work before they are able to offer the increased rate for this set of activities, and this will be made available beginning with the FY 2020 CSP sign-up.
For more detailed information on CSP payments and the application process, check out NSAC’s updated CSP Information Alert.
Farmers and ranchers interested in applying for CSP in FY 2019 should go to their local NRCS office to submit an initial application before the March 10 deadline.