September 9, 2013
The Land Stewardship Project just released a comprehensive report addressing the Conservation Stewardship Program in Minnesota. The report analyzes participation in the program county-by-county and makes recommendations to improve the program at the state and national level.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a comprehensive working-lands program that provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers that maintain existing conservation practices and implement new practices that address particular resource concerns.
The report highlights Minnesota as the top recipient of both CSP contracts and CSP dollars obligated:
The report also illustrates the economic and environmental benefits of CSP enrollment. According to one farmer, “Without the [CSP], it may have been more profitable the last couple years to plant my entire farm into one crop like continuous corn[…] But with this program I was able to maintain a four-crop rotation, which helps reduce erosion and is good for the land.”
Another stated, “It doesn’t have to be a choice between being a working, productive farm and conservation[…] Programs like CSP can help farmers strike a balance between profits and sustainability.”
Based on the Land Stewardship Project’s review of CSP participation in Minnesota, the report makes the following recommendations:
1. Preserve conservation funding: “When the new Farm Bill is passed, it must allocate enough resources to enroll 12.8 million acres of CSP contracts each year for the five-year life of the law. If any cuts are proposed to the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, they should be minimized to the greatest extent possible. Any cuts should be equalized among programs to reduce the outsized budget burden CSP has been saddled with up to this point.”
2. Encourage agency outreach and collaboration: “Due to the critical role local NRCS staff play in how CSP performs in a county, extensive efforts should be made to share statewide the best approaches and methods for maximizing CSP use[…] Collaboration among agencies and local stakeholders should be encouraged and yearly accountability measures sought or enhanced.”
3. Improve application scoring process: “The complexity of the CSP scoring system, a common complaint among farmers, must be addressed. This scoring or ‘ranking’ process should be made more transparent so that CSP can live up to its potential of supporting current conservation and promoting the implementation of future conservation activities. In addition, the ranking system should be modified so that it corrects the current bias toward new activities and provides a fairer assessment of existing activities of similar or identical conservation value.”
CSP’s Fate in the Farm Bill and Appropriations Process
NRCS is expected to enroll over 12 million additional acres for 2013. But, despite the popularity of this program, both the House and Senate versions of the 2013 Farm Bill would cut conservation funding significantly. CSP in particular would face disproportionate cuts, especially in the House-passed farm bill.
Moreover, conservation programs are continually at risk from changes in mandatory program spending, or “CHIMPS,” that occur during the appropriations process. Fortunately for the farmers and ranchers who use CSP, both the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills spare CSP from cuts in FY 2014, as did the final FY 2013 appropriations bill. CSP is, however, subject to cuts via the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration until such time as Congress stops the across-the-board budget cutting process.