February 25, 2016
This post is the second in a series chronicling stories from farmers and ranchers who have experienced success with the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The first story, highlighting Alabama farmer Miguel Otero can be found here.
As a third-generation farmer in Greensboro, Alabama, Cornelius Joe knows firsthand the importance of taking care of working lands today, so that the next generation can prosper tomorrow. Cornelius and his wife, Leola, have many reasons to ensure their farmland is robust fertile for years to come. Together they have four children–Cornelius II, Timothy, Christopher and Jacqueline, as well as four grandchildren–Caleb, Victoria, Abigail, and Gabrielle. Cornelius raises black angus cattle as well as hay for their winter feed on “Joe’s Angus Farm”, and has used the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), to maintain his land for nearly 15 years.
CSP is a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which assists farmers and ranchers who are committed to preserving the soil, air, water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity on their lands. Farmers enrolled in the program earn payments for maintaining, expanding, and adding conservation activities–all while they work their lands for production.
Inspired by his high school agriculture teacher, Cornelius attended Alabama A&M University, where he pursued a career as an agri-science educator. Originally he had no intentions of taking over the family farm, but after his father passed away, Cornelius decided to take on the responsibility of keeping the multi-generational Joe’s Angus Farm in operation. Thankfully Cornelius wasn’t alone in his new undertaking; he had his wife Leola and his children to help him get started.
“When they were growing up, the kids would get out and help me deal with hay,” said Cornelius. “Everything worked based off having them to assist in the farming operation.”
Since retiring from teaching, Cornelius has been able to dedicate more time to his cattle operation; he has also started working closely with his local NRCS office. First Cornelius began working with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides farmers with financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices on his farmland. After successfully using EQIP to increase conservation efforts on his farm, Cornelius decided to apply for his first CSP contract in 2010, and was subsequently able to renew his contract in 2015.
“When I started working more with the farm, I’d visit the [offices] and talk to them about programs I could benefit from,” said Cornelius. “They were really good at letting me know what was available.”
EQIP and CSP, both federal working lands programs administered through NRCS, work in tandem to assist farmers with whole-farm conservation efforts. EQIP provides cost-share assistance for basic farm infrastructure while CSP rewards farmers using advanced land and resource management techniques.
“[Our CSP contract supports] the overall environmental quality of the ag field, the soil and water conservation, the whole thing of what we do,” says Cornelius.
High quality water and forage are essential for raising healthy livestock, and Cornelius knows farmers and ranchers can only benefit from taking steps to improve these resources. Through the CSP program Cornelius has been able to introduce a number of “enhancements”, or conservation activities, on his ranch.
To improve his soil quality, CSP helped Cornelius to conduct soil samples on his fields. He was then given recommendations on what variety of forage plants would grow well and also helped him introduce split nitrogen application on his pastures. By planting the best variety of forage plants on his fields, Cornelius was able to improve the diet of his cattle while at the same time preventing erosion and increasing biodiversity on his land. Through the split nitrogen application he was able to minimize nitrogen losses from his pastures, resulting in healthier soil and improved water quality (due to reduced fertilizer use and subsequent runoff)
Another positive pasture practice Cornelius was able to introduce via CSP was the rotation of his feeding racks to better aid in livestock distribution and utilization of pasture. This practice provides multiple benefits to ranchers because while it aids in distribution of manure and nutrients, it also reduces compaction of the soil and trampling of vegetation.
The CSP program didn’t just help Cornelius with soil and pasture quality, however. He was also able to retrofit the watering troughs and tanks on his farm through the program, which allowed the escape of wildlife that would have previously become trapped while trying to drink. This practice provides wildlife species like bats and birds with a water source that was previously unavailable, while at the same time ensuring a clean water source for the livestock on his farm.
“One of the major problems that small farmers face is that things are really costly,” said Cornelius, “I need programs like CSP.”
Although Cornelius has now retired from teaching, he is still dedicated to educating the next generation of farmers. He is currently in the process of starting an agricultural education center in his county to assist farmers as they apply for funding through programs like CSP.
“The main thing for small farmers is determining what niche you have to go after and how to plan for that. I know the value of having someone who can give you some pointers that won’t cost you any money,” explained Cornelius.
CSP Updates and Important Facts
In order to improve access for small acreage, high value operations like Joe’s Angus Farm, USDA has raised the annual minimum contract payment floor to $1500. This represents an increase of $500 from the previous minimum; it also expands minimum payments by making them available to all farmers, regardless of size.
Special priority is given by CSP to socially disadvantaged farmers and beginning farmers to encourage their participation in conservation activities. Five percent of all CSP acres each year are reserved exclusively for competitions among these groups, thereby increasing their chances of securing a CSP contract. Veterans are also given a preference within these categories.
If you are interested in applying for the Conservation Stewardship Program, the initial application must be submitted by March 31. Current CSP participants who enrolled in 2012 also have until March 31 to renew their contracts before the expire at the end of this year.
To assist producers in this process, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) 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.
Printed copies of the Farmers’ Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies, email NSAC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more photos of Joe’s Angus Farm, be sure to check out the NSAC Flickr page!