The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the nation’s largest conservation program and the only one that tackles resource concern protection and enhancement from a comprehensive approach. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s member organizations work directly with the farmers and ranchers who utilize this program, and recently three NSAC member organizations helped tell the story of the CSP’s impact for farmers and ranchers, and the natural resources that the program works to protect.
We applaud the Land Stewardship Project, Center for Rural Affairs, and Wild Farm Alliance for helping to elevate the voices of the farmers and ranchers who utilize and depend on CSP. Their voices are more important now than ever, as Congress is currently working to write the next farm bill, which will have major implications for conservation programs, including CSP. There is a lot at stake for CSP, as the House and Senate bills that have been passed by their respective chambers differ significantly in how they approach working lands conservation programs, including CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
The House bill attempts to fold CSP into the EQIP, but it fails to retain the most important features of CSP, including a comprehensive, whole farm approach to conservation, an eligibility threshold based on conservation benefits for participation, and a clear reservation of dedicated funds for stewardship contracts. Conversely, the Senate makes important policy improvements to working lands conservation programs, including improved coordination between EQIP and CSP, as well as additional payments and support for cover crops, diversified crop rotations, advanced grazing management, and comprehensive conservation planning. NSAC will be urging the farm bill conference committee to use the Senate approach of retaining and improving working lands conservation programs as they work to address the significant differences between the two bills.
Below we highlight three recent materials published by NSAC member organizations, all of which bring farmer voices to the table to tell the story of the importance of CSP. These are the voices that need to be front and center as Congress works to conference the House and Senate bills in the weeks ahead.
Minnesota Farmers Speak Up on Conservation
The Land Stewardship Project (LSP), based in Minnesota, delivered a letter to House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) asking him to defend conservation programs and policies during farm bill conference negotiations in the weeks ahead. In addition to Ranking Member Peterson, Minnesota has four other members on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees – Representatives Tim Walz and Rick Nolan and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith – more Agriculture Committee representation than any other state.
In the letter, over 150 farmers and ranchers from across Minnesota asked Rep. Peterson to protect CSP as a stand-alone program and include critical improvements from the Senate bill. Minnesota has more active CSP contracts than any other state in the country, and thus farmers understand the importance of the program, as well as key opportunities to ensure it works even better.
Darrel Mosel, a CSP farmer from Rep. Peterson’s district, signed the letter and spoke to his personal experience benefiting from the program:
“Farmers can, and do, generate conservation benefits on the ground they actively farm, and these benefits go beyond their own farms to provide positive and lasting outcomes for everyone. CSP helped me to do this on my own farm. To kill this jewel of a program in the new Farm Bill makes no sense. Our lawmakers need to decide to keep CSP in, and make it even stronger.”
In addition to protecting and improving CSP, the Minnesota farmers also urged Representative Peterson to support important conservation reforms included in the Senate bill that improve the linkage between crop insurance and conservation. The letter points to the importance of ensuring that crop insurance in the next farm bill supports, rather than disincentivizes, the adoption of conservation practices like incorporating cover crops, which play a key role in mitigating risk.
New Report Illustrates CSP Utilization and Experiences
Also this week, the Center for Rural Affairs released a new report that analyzes CSP utilization and experiences in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. The Report, A farmers’ view: a look at the Conservation Stewardship Program, analyzed survey results from more than 800 farmers and ranchers across the region, and found that respondents reported positive changes to soil health, water, quality, and other natural resources.
The report also found that in addition to protecting natural resources, CSP also supports participants with the financial assistance and incentives needed to further advance their conservation efforts and maintain their bottom line. One Kansas participant shared,
“With the close margins on commodities, it allows you to do the enhancements you would like to do without hurting your bottom line as much and being able to try new ideas and techniques.”
Another North Dakota participant explained that CSP was the difference maker when it came to being able to take conservation efforts to the next level:
“Without programs like CSP, it would be very difficult to integrate new technology and practices that help enhance conservation efforts on our farm.”
CSP participants surveyed also reflected a strong interest and commitment to protecting and improving CSP in the next farm bill. Nearly 90 percent of total respondents said that CSP should be a priority in the next farm bill, thus sending a clear message to Congress that the 2018 Farm Bill is the time to be protecting and enhancing CSP.
Western Ranchers and CSP Wildlife Benefits
Finally, Wild Farm Alliance, also an NSAC member organization, published a review of CSP utilization and feedback in Montana: Farm Bill 2018 Issue Brief: Conservation Stewardship Program. The report found that CSP not only offers farmers and ranchers financial incentives to establish whole farm conservation efforts, but it also provides a wide range of significant and complimentary environmental benefits. One Montana cattle rancher spoke to the multiple benefits of effective and targeted grasslands management through CSP:
“I think the biggest impact to conservation is not to tear up the grass in the first place…there are ways to graze our cattle more effectively that improves organic matter and cover, which allows us to use what available moisture we do get and hold it more efficiently.”
Additionally, Montana producers directly translated their experiences into what is needed in the next farm bill, with one cattle rancher and grain farmer explaining,
“I think CSP is the sort of program that we need to be doing more of, not less…[CSP] is one of the best thing, from our perspective, that USDA does.”
The report also highlighted significant wildlife benefits resulting from the adoption of CSP conservation activities, including:
- Pollinator habitat and wildlife food plots
- Wildlife friendly habitat such as birdhouses and wildlife corridors
- On-farm safety measures for wildlife
- Encouraging establishment of native species through rotational grazing
- Connecting farmers and ranchers to technical assistance through NRCS
NSAC will continue to work with our member organizations to ensure that members of Congress hear the voices and stories of CSP participants as the farm bill is reauthorized. We thank, and will continue to look to our member organizations, to help to tell these critical stories.
Next week we will publish a detailed analysis comparing the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, including the Conservation Titles, with NSAC’s recommendations for conference negotiations. It is possible that Congress will formally head to conference as early as next week – stay tuned!