NSAC's Blog

Inside the Nation’s Largest Conservation Program – Part I

November 8, 2013

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the nation’s largest conservation program by acreage.  Yet, as with most USDA conservation programs, little data is publically available on how the program is working.  In 2011, we published a series of three blog posts to provide an in-depth assessment of CSP data.  This is the first post in a three-part update on how CSP is helping producers conserve critical natural resources. 

Conservation Stewardship Program Update – Part I

The 2008 Farm Bill requires that USDA enroll nearly 12.8 million acres of crop, pasture, range and forested land in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) each year, though this number sometimes fluctuates with the annual funding cycle.  Since its inception, nearly 60 million acres of land have been enrolled in the program.  For reference, this means that the total number of acres enrolled in CSP is slightly more than the area of the state of Minnesota and twice the size of Pennsylvania.

CSP rewards farmers, ranchers, and foresters for how they grow what they grow.  Like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), CSP contracts are ranked based on conservation performance points that reflect the environmental benefits provided in a producer’s application.  Unlike the CRP, however, which pays producers based on local land rental rates, CSP payments are calculated based on the environmental benefits produced.  This also differs from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which pays producers based on how much it costs the producer to install the conservation practice.

NRCS uses a program, called the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT), to assess how farmers and ranchers are maintaining and increasing conservation performance to address the identified resource problems of a particular area.  If a producer meets acceptable conservation levels and is eligible for the program, they compete in a ranking process that determines who will receive contracts.  Contracts are awarded to those offering the highest level of environmental benefits, with NRCS working down through the list of eligible applicants until acreage allocated to the particular state for that particular year runs out.

Since the last farm bill passed in 2008, there have been CSP enrollments in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, with contractually obligated funding paid out annually to farmers and ranchers across the country to protect soil, water, air, biodiversity, and wildlife habitat on working agricultural lands.  CSP contracts run for five years and may be renewed provided there is continual conservation improvement.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently released select data to NSAC on the 2011 and 2012 enrollment years (2013 data has not yet been made available).  In this three-part blog series, we report on the progress that CSP has made in making land stewardship a financially rewarding endeavor for farmers and ranchers.  For background information on CSP, you can read the NSAC Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill or read previous blog posts about the program.  You can also read our Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program.

The First Four Years of CSP in a Nutshell

There are three ways to think about how CSP funding is allocated to farmers.  CSP contracts last for five years – so we can look at (1) the total five-year value of CSP contracts signed in a particular year or period of years; (2) the actual amount of money that NRCS pays out to farmers, including previous years’ contracts; or (3) the amount of single-year funding that NRCS obligates to producers when they sign up, not including payments on previous years’ contracts.

The total value of all five-year CSP contracts signed from 2009 to 2012 is roughly $3.4 billion.  Over the first four years of the program, NRCS paid out over $1.7 billion to 38,989 producers, with payments based on their environmental benefits score.  This amount includes payments on all five-year contracts, regardless of when those contracts were signed.  Over the same period, NRCS obligated roughly $673 million in first-year payments. 

A Closer Look at the 2011 and 2012 Sign-ups

In 2011, NRCS enrolled 9,550 producers in CSP, representing 12.75 million acres of agricultural and forest land and $191 million in first-year financial assistance, or nearly $1 billion over the life of those five-year contracts.  The average payment per acre for 2011 was $15, the average contract amount was $19,876, and the average number of acres per contract was 1,324.[1]  As the figure below depicts, the majority of acres enrolled under CSP in 2011 were cropland and rangeland.


The average payments per acre for cropland and rangeland were $24 and $4.50, respectively. The average payment per acre was $18 for pasture and pastured cropland, and $10 for forestland during this sign-up period. Note that payments per acre by land-use type change when multiple land-use types are being treated in one contract. The values presented here are for contracts with single land-use types only, except in the case of pastureland, where we combine the averages of pasture-based contracts and pastured cropland-based contracts.

In 2012, cropland accounted for nearly 80 percent of the dollars obligated for new enrollments. This proportion has not changed much since the first CSP sign up, but because land use categories changed somewhat in 2011, we cannot make a direct comparison. In 2010, though, land partially or entirely made up of cropland accounted for nearly 85 percent of the dollars obligated.

Land Use Type Dollars Obligated, 2012
Cropland $132,675,459
Pasture $7,381,621
Rangeland $23,139,160
Forestland $2,483,318
Pastured Cropland $1,689,941

The 2012 sign-up period enrolled 9,036 farmers and ranchers, representing 12.1 million acres and about $168 million in first-year financial assistance.  The average contract award for the 2012 sign-up period was $18,611 and the average payment per acre was $14.  The average number of acres per contract was 1,340.

Priority Resource Concerns 

The states are responsible for determining what the priority resource concerns will be for CSP enrollments and must declare at least three for the regions or watersheds within the state.  Farmers and ranchers must then address the priority resource concerns specified in their CSP contracts, exceeding the sustainable use or non-degradation levels on at least one priority resource concern at the time they enroll and at least one more during the initial CSP contract period.

The chart below demonstrates the percentage of states that selected specific priority resource concerns.  The top tier choices, selected by a majority of the country, are water quality, animals (including wildlife habitat), plants (including biodiversity), soil erosion, and soil quality.  The second tier, representing minority percentages of the country, includes the more regionally specific resource concerns, such as water conservation (quantity), air quality, and energy conservation.


Part Two and Three of the CSP Blog Series

In part two of this blog series, NSAC will report cumulative statistics about the program.  This will include the most frequently chosen conservation activities, a breakdown of funding by commodity type, and the top ten states in terms of of CSP funding.

Part three of the series will highlight CSP participation by specialty crop producers and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource farmers and ranchers and will look at trends in participation that are unique to these categories of farmers.

If there is specific data or information you would like us to highlight in these blogs, please let us know.  You can share comments at the bottom of this post.

[1] This average includes several special contract categories, including tribal lands, which makes the number larger than it would otherwise be.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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