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Farm Bill Myth-Busting: the Conservation Stewardship Program

October 10, 2018

Rye cover crops in Harford County Maryland. Cover crops are among the conservation practices supported by CSP. Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg, USDA.

Rye cover crops in Harford County Maryland. Cover crops are among the conservation practices supported by CSP. Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg, USDA.

With the 2014 Farm Bill now expired without an extension in place, all eyes are now on the congressional leaders heading up the Farm Bill Conference Committee. The Committee leaders, which include Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Pat Roberts (R-KS), Ranking Member Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Mike Conaway (R-TX), Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN), are currently working behind the scenes in an attempt to negotiate a new bill by the end of the year.

Negotiations have proven difficult because of the substantive differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The Senate bill, for example, was approved with broad bipartisan support, while the House only narrowly passed along partisan lines after initially failing on the House floor. The differences between the two draft bills can be found across nearly all twelve of the farm bill’s titles, including the conservation title.

Within the conservation title, the biggest split is on the future of the farm bill’s working lands conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In the Senate bill, both major working lands programs are kept whole, and important policy improvements are made to each that increase access and environmental benefits. The bill also cuts funding for each program by equal amounts to help pay for a needed funding increase of agricultural conservation easements.

The House bill took a much different approach. The House proposes to eliminate our nation’s only comprehensive working lands conservation program, CSP, entirely. This elimination is justified by the claim that the House bill would transfer the key components of CSP to EQIP, along with a portion of CSP funding – a myth we refute in more detail below. While the House bill does transfer some CSP funding, it still cuts $5 billion in total conservation funding. The proposed elimination of CSP would also reduce agricultural sustainability and cut working lands funding from a large number of key agricultural states, denying farmers and ranchers access to comprehensive conservation support.

Setting the Record Straight on Conservation

Though it may not always take center stage, the farm bill’s Conservation Title is in fact one of the core pieces that the Farm Bill Conference Committee must now negotiate. Given the billions of dollars in conservation funding that are on the table, as well as the immense environmental and economic benefits that working lands programs have helped to generate nationwide, it’s critical to set the farm bill conservation story straight. Supporters of the House farm bill’s radical approach to conservation have labored to create a mythology, albeit an internally contradictory one, about what they are doing. In this post, we explore those myths and sets the record straight about what’s really at stake in the next farm bill.

Myth: “The House proposal doesn’t eliminate the core functions of CSP, it simply merges CSP into an expanded EQIP”

Reality: The House’s proposal to replace CSP with a new “stewardship contracts” option within EQIP would not retain, but in fact completely eliminate, the core components of CSP.

The following chart, first published in a National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) press release that was issued following the publication of the House’s draft farm bill, provides a comprehensive list of CSP components under current law vs. the House bill:

“CSP Best Features” Current Law Conaway Farm Bill
Comprehensive Conservation Approach YES NO
Whole Farm Conservation Approach YES NO
Reach Good Environmental Stewardship Threshold to be Eligible YES NO
Designate at Least 5 Priority Resource Concerns YES Designates only 3
Payments for Active Management of Ongoing Conservation YES NO
Payments for Advanced Conservation Enhancements YES NO
Payments Based on Conservation Benefits YES NO
Supplemental Payments For Ag Diversification –
Resource Conserving Crop Rotation
Five Year Renewable Contracts with Continual Improvement YES NO
Single 5-10 year contract
$40,000/year Payment Limitation YES Unnecessarily increased to $50,000
Five Year Funding (2019-2023) $8.8 Billion Anywhere from $0-$6.6 billion; a cut of 25-100%
Ten Year Funding (2019-2028) $17.7 Billion Anywhere from $0-$14.1 billion; a cut of 21-100%

While some proponents of the House bill might try to compare the House’s merging of CSP and EQIP to the merger of easement programs that took place in the 2014 Farm Bill, this is a false comparison. In the creation of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), Congress retained the underlying structures and purposes of its farm, ranch, grass, and wetland easement programs.

The proposal to eliminate CSP and expand EQIP, however, fails to retain any of the core components of the program. As the chart above indicates, CSP’s eligibility thresholds, advanced conservation activities, payments based on conservation benefits, and comprehensive approach to conservation would all be lost under the House proposal. Advocates of this approach should call it what it is – the eradication of our nation’s only comprehensive working lands conservation program.

Myth: “CSP is useless, we have to get rid of CSP because taxpayers aren’t getting enough bang for their buck”

Reality: CSP is a great deal for taxpayers because it helps farmers to advance the most comprehensive sustainability strategies while also generating ~$3.95 in returned value for every dollar of taxpayer money invested.

CSP is the only farm bill program that supports high level conservation addressing multiple natural resource concerns on a farm. It is also the only working lands program that requires participants to address priority resource concerns and to solve them to sustainable use level. Additionally, CSP is the only working lands program that requires farmers to continually advance their conservation efforts in order to remain in the program.

The benefits of CSP don’t stop with the farmer or even the surrounding lands, CSP provides environmental and economic benefits that ripple throughout communities. By protecting and strengthening our natural resources, CSP provides immense benefits to all Americans who value clean water and healthy soils. Additionally, by keeping family farms strong, CSP helps to ensure that they continue contributing to their local economies and providing both food and job to their neighbors.

A recent a recent report from NSAC members the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), monetizes the real impact that CSP has on taxpayers. According to the report, CSP’s Return on Investment (ROI) is significantly higher than other federal conservation programs. In fact, for every dollar of taxpayer money invested into CSP, we get about $3.95 in returned value. Despite the significant number of positive ripple effects that CSP generates, it actually operates on a much lower per-acre rate than the farm bill’s two other large conservation programs, EQIP and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – which further saves taxpayer dollars.

If the Senate’s proposals on conservation are adopted into the final farm bill, important policy changes would be made to CSP that would even further increase the program’s ROI to taxpayers. If the House bill is adopted and CSP is eliminated, however, UCS estimates that the lost benefits could total as much as $4.7 billion dollars per year.

Myth: “We have no other option, eliminating CSP is the only way to improve the flexibility and accessibility of working lands conservation programs”

Reality: CSP is extremely popular with farmers and routinely has far more qualified applicants than can be accepted into the program. Where changes do need to be made to improve the program, there are myriad administrative and legislative options available.

For years, NSAC has worked closely with our allies in Congress and with staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continually improve and strengthen conservation programs – CSP is no exception. Whether through legislative (Congress) or administrative (USDA) means, there are many options open to those interested in improving program flexibility, accessibility, and even stakeholders who would like to see improved coordination between CSP and EQIP. In fact, these efforts are already underway.

The Senate bill takes significant steps to improve and strengthen both programs in their bill by, for example, simplifying ranking and eligibility criteria. The Senate bill also improves coordination between EQIP and CSP’s application and enrollment processes, helping to create an “on-ramp” from EQIP to enhanced conservation efforts through CSP. While we agree with the message that there is much more that can and should be done to simplify and streamline application and enrollment processes, eliminating CSP altogether is absolutely not the answer.

In addition to the important policy reforms included in the Senate bill to advance program flexibility and accessibility, farmers, farmer-advocacy organizations like NSAC, and USDA’s field staff all have direct experience with CSP and EQIP that can and should be considered in any attempts to improve program implementation in the future.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While behind-the-scenes negotiations of the Farm Bill Conference Committee are slated to continue this month, Congress is unlikely to return to Washington D.C. before the November elections. Any vote on a new farm bill, therefore, would most likely be after the elections, but before a new Congress is sworn in.

The 120+ member organizations will continue to put the pressure on Congress to finalize a new farm bill that follows the example set by the Senate draft farm bill as son as possible. To view NSAC’s complete farm bill conference recommendations, click here.

The task for sustainable agriculture advocates now is to learn as much as possible about the impact of programs like CSP and EQIP, and to help our friends, families, and even Congress Members understand the vital role these programs play in our food and farm systems. To learn more about the current structure, terminology, and benefits of CSP, see NSAC’s online publications: Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs and Farmers’ Guide to CSPFor the latest conservation farm bill news and engagement opportunities, be sure to sign up for our Weekly Roundup e-newsletter and check our Take Action! page.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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