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Conservation Stewardship Program Recap; 2016 Sign-Up Ends in 10 Days!

March 21, 2016

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) has been supporting farmers and ranchers for more than seven years by providing the financial and technical assistance needed to manage and adopt advanced conservation systems on agricultural lands. Recently, an expansion of the minimum annual CSP payment (beginning this year the limit will be raised to $1,500 for all farmers) has made the program more important than ever for small-scale producers.

In light of this important change, plus the deadline fast approaching for this year’s sign ups (March 31, 2016 for new and renewing contracts) and a major program overhaul on tap for 2017, this is an ideal time to do a basic data review of the comprehensive and targeted conservation efforts made possible by this unique stewardship program.

CSP Contracts and Acres by State

CSP offers financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers in all 50 states. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has awarded nearly 60,000 contracts, spanning more than 76 million acres across the country. Over the life of the five-year contracts, NRCS will obligate more than $5 billion in financial assistance to support comprehensive conservation assistance.

The charts below illustrate the top 5 states, by contracts received and acreage enrolled, utilizing CSP between 2009 and 2015. The differences between the two lists are reflective of the wide variance in farm and ranch size throughout the country.

Top States by Contract (2009 – 2015)

State Contract
Minnesota 4,731
Oklahoma 4,057
Missouri 3,795
Iowa 3,748
Nebraska 3,118


Top States by Acres (2009 – 2015)

State CSP Acres
South Dakota 6,219,371
New Mexico 5,820,063
Nebraska 5,800,678
Montana 4,932,114
Texas 4,828,888


Resource Concerns

Farmers and ranchers can address all their most pressing resource concerns through their CSP contracts – water quality, water conservation, soil quality, soil conservation, wildlife habitat, and energy conservation.

One of the most significant benefits of CSP is that each contract is tailored for a producer’s particular operation and resource concerns. Over the last month, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has profiled some of the tens of thousands of producers utilizing CSP across the country. Some of these producers are using intensive rotation grazing to improve nutrient cycling, increase carbon sequestration, and produce better forage. Others are protecting wildlife by providing water sources that were previously unavailable, while at the same time ensuring a clean water source for the livestock on their farm. We have also found that as some CSP producers work to prevent erosion and runoff, improve water quality, and protect natural resources, they recognize the benefits of sharing their conservation efforts with neighboring farms through education and collaboration.

A closer look at the enhancements (aka conservation activities) selected over the past seven sign-up periods (from 2009 to 2015) highlights CSP’s comprehensive conservation footprint.

  • Water quality and water conservation
    • Between 2009 and 2015, CSP participants have adopted more than 139,000 water quality and water conservation enhancements, representing more than 35 percent of all enhancements chosen during this period. Some enhancements protect water quality by addressing the timing and intensity of pesticide and fertilizer application and keeping livestock away from sensitive water bodies. Other enhancements addressed water quantity issues by mulching to conserve moisture in the soil and scheduling irrigation based on regional water networks.
  • Soil health
    • CSP supports cropping and livestock systems that provide significant soil health and climate change benefits, including advanced cover cropping practices and managed rotational grazing. Resource conserving crop rotations (RCCRs), in particular, are particularly well suited to improving soil health and fertility as well as reducing erosion, interrupting pest cycles, and reducing the need for irrigation. RCCRs must include at least “one resource-conserving crop,” which can be a perennial grass, a legume, a legume-grass mixture, or a small grain grown in combination with a grass or legume that is used as a green manure.
    • The chart below illustrates the states that enrolled the highest number of contracts and acres with resource conserving crop rotations between 2009 and 2015:

Top States by Resource Conserving Crop Rotation Contracts (2009 – 2015)

State Contracts
South Dakota 638
Louisiana 602
Montana 314
Kansas 277
Washington 179








Top States by Resource Conserving Crop Rotation Acres (2009 – 2015)

State Acres
South Dakota 139,807
Louisiana 111,526
Montana 86,703
Kansas 61,544
North Dakota 46,469


  • Biodiversity, wildlife, and pollinator habitat
    • More than 20 percent of enhancements selected between 2009 and 2015 support wildlife, pollinator, and beneficial insect habitat.
    • These enhancements support producers through targeted activities including harvesting hay in a manner that is wildlife friendly, establishing field borders, grazing management to improve wildlife habitat, and aligning livestock management with wildlife availability.

Organic Producers

Organic and transitioning to organic producers are a natural fit for CSP. Between 2009 and 2015, USDA awarded 364 CSP contracts to certified organic or transitioning to organic producers, covering more than 200,000 acres. The charts below illustrate the top five states by organic acreage as well as the top five states by the number of organic contracts:

State Organic CSP Acres
California 69,592
Nebraska 61,738
South Dakota 57,686
Minnesota 29,864
Wisconsin 27,378
State Organic CSP Contracts
Wisconsin 142
Minnesota 89
Iowa 57
California 53
New York 35










Conservation is central to organic agriculture, and CSP offers enhancements designed to assist organic farmers. While CSP does not have a separate pool of funds for organic producers, most organic farms are very likely to have extensive conservation systems already in place when they apply. This means that organic and transitioning producers are likely to rank high for their existing conservation practices and ability to take on higher-scoring enhancements.

There are several enhancements specifically targeted to transitioning and certified organic farmers, including transition to organic grazing or cropping systems, intensive no-till, non-chemical pest management for livestock, organic integrated pest management (IPM), on-farm composting of organic waste, and non-chemical methods to kill cover crops. Since 2009, farmers and ranchers selected over 740 enhancements specific to organic production.

NSAC is pleased that as indicated in the final rule, NRCS is considering the development of “bundles” of enhancements specifically targeted to organic and transitioning to organic producers as a part of the upcoming CSP overhaul. We will urge NRCS to increase support the existing organic enhancements, and move forward with the establishing flexible bundles for certified organic and transitioning to organic producers.

Livestock and Crop Production

CSP is inclusive, covering all types of private agricultural land on which commodities, livestock, or forest-related products are produced.

Between 2009 and 2015, livestock producers throughout the country received over 30,000 contracts, covering nearly 50 million acres nationwide. Among those farms with livestock, beef cattle operations represent more than 84 percent of total contracts and 94 percent of acres. Dairy producers received the next highest percentage of total livestock contracts (9 percent) between 2009 and 2015, and swine producers received and additional 3 percent of contracts. It should be noted that producers identify their predominant form of livestock production, so could have different livestock as part of their CSP contract as well.

The charts below illustrate the predominant forms of livestock production on CSP contracts between 2009 and 2015:



Additionally, many CSP participants include both livestock and crop production as part of their operation. Between 2009 and 2015, more than 26,000 (46 percent) of all contracts covering more than 38 million acres (53 percent of all acres) integrated both crop and livestock production into their operations enrolled in CSP.

Of crop producers, commodity crops have dominated CSP contracts, paralleling agricultural cropland use in the country. Between 2009 and 2015, farms that grew corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, sorghum, cotton, and rice as their predominant crops received the majority (63 percent) of the total 53,000 CSP contracts for farmers producing crops. These contracts represented more than 37 million acres throughout the country, or 61 percent of total crop acreage.

While farms on which corn is the predominant crop are dominant in terms of the percentage of contracts awarded (36 percent), forage/ hay cropland represent the crops with the highest treated acreage. Forage/hay cropland represents 61 million acres of total CSP crop acreage in the country, nearly 30 percent of total coverage.

The charts below illustrate the breakdown of acres and contracts for all CSP cropland between 2009 and 2015:


Contract Size and Payment Rates

CSP participants enroll their entire operation when they sign-up; contracts can range in size from less than one acre to more than 200,000 acres per operation. Between 2009 and 2015, the average contract size across the country was 1,270 acres. While the average contract in some states was below 400 acres (West Virginia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio), other states had averages well above 3,000 acres. There is no acreage limit for CSP, but payments are capped at $40,000 per year, or $200,000 over the life of a 5-year contract.

Nationwide, payments plus the cost of technical assistance average $18 per acre, but average acreage payments vary significantly by land-use and by state. The linkage between acreage and payments has often meant that CSP has not provided sufficient incentive for smaller acreage producers to participate.

However, beginning this year, an important increase to the minimum payment amount will help to level the playing field for smaller acreage producers. For the 2016 sign-up period, all successful applicants will be awarded a minimum annual payment of $1,500. This a major opportunity for smaller acreage and specialty crop producers.

Between 2009 and 2015, more than 4,200 producers received annual payments below $1,500. The data suggests that a large number of applicants may have chosen not to participate in CSP because payments were too low, something we hope will be reversed with the new, higher annual payment limit.

Renewing Expiring Contracts

CSP contracts last for five years, and all CSP participants have the option to renew their contracts for an additional five years. This option is available for producers who met the terms of the original contract, and are willing to adopt additional conservation activities or address additional resource concerns. 2014 and 2015 were the first two years that expiring contracts were up for renewal.

Nationally, 71 percent of expiring acres were renewed in 2014 and another 74 percent were renewed in 2015, totaling more than 33 million acres of conservation. When considered in terms of expiring contracts, a significantly lower proportion of applicants (57 percent in 2014 and 58 percent in 2015) opted to renew, indicating that many of the renewals were larger acreage contracts, while smaller operations did not renew.

NSAC has continued to advocate that USDA provide sufficient incentive, such as the recently increased payment minimum, for smaller acreage producers considering renewal. We hope the Administration will use the upcoming CSP overhaul as an opportunity to ensure that participants are rewarded for their ongoing conservation efforts, regardless of the size of their operation.

Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers

NSAC pays particular attention to how federal programs impact beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers across the county. Access to conservation programs is especially important for the new and socially disadvantaged producers, who will see some of the greatest benefits from this type of support.

The 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills require 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 compete for funding amongst other beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers, but not with applicants as a whole – thereby increasing their chances of securing a CSP contract.

The percentage of total CSP acres enrolled by beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers has continually increased over the past six years, illustrating high demand and interest from these groups of producers.


We are pleased that the recently published final rule addresses a need to expand the participation rates by these two groups of producers beyond current participation rates. As a result, NRCS established a policy goal to expand enrollment by beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers in all ranking pools, and will also allocate additional acres to the two set-aside pools as needed to address the growing program demand.

2016 CSP Application Deadline Quickly Approaching

The deadline for farmers and ranchers to submit their initial CSP application is only 10 days away. On top of the 10 million acres that USDA will enroll this year, more than 12 million additional acres that were originally enrolled in 2012 are now up for renewal. Producers with expiring contracts also have until March 31 to reapply for an additional five-year contract.

The initial step to apply to CSP is easy, as applicants simply need to complete a short form that asks for basic information regarding land ownership, type of production, and contact information. While producers can sign up anytime throughout the year for CSP, producers should submit applications by March 31 to ensure they are considered for enrollment in 2016.

This year’s deadline carries particular significance, as a major program overhaul is scheduled for 2017. In order for producers to enroll in CSP under its existing structure, ranking process, and current conservation activities, they must apply before the March 31 deadline.

Once a farmer or rancher’s initial application is accepted by NRCS, they are then scored based on current and planned future conservation activities. If applicants meet acceptable conservation levels, they become eligible to compete in a ranking process that determines who will receive contracts. NRCS works down through the list of eligible applicants until acreage allocated to the particular state for that particular year runs out.

In order to support producers going through the application process, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has released its CSP Information Alert, with step-by-step sign-up and enrollment details, including a complete list of all conservation activities that enrollees will have to choose from as they consider their CSP options.

In addition to the Information Alert, NSAC has also published a more detailed Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which includes enrollment guidance, key definitions, explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program.

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

Printed copies of the Farmers’ Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies, email NSAC at intern@sustainableagriculture.net.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Organic

2 responses to “Conservation Stewardship Program Recap; 2016 Sign-Up Ends in 10 Days!”

  1. Debby Watts says:

    I am unsure how to apply, I am a horse farm owner who is nurturing a newly planted 7 acre pasture on 15 acres. I want to understand how to maintain the pasture with minimal chemicals. I also have a creek that comes from a stream that I want to make sure is clean and maintained. I am very new to pasture management, however I have been a horse owner and farm owner for many years.

    Thank you,
    Debby Watts

  2. Alyssa Charney says:

    Hi Debby,
    Glad you are interested in CSP! The initial application form is short and simple, but you do have to submit it by the March 31 deadline for the 2016 enrollment period. You can go to your local NRCS office to complete the basic application form, and set a later date to come back and work through the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) with the staff in your local NRCS office. If you are applying as an entity (corporation, limited partnership, trust, estate, etc), you will need to have a DUNS number and SAM prior to completing the application – you do not need these numbers if you’re applying as an individual. Your local NRCS office will be able to work with you on all next steps – best of luck!