Farmers and ranchers are important managers of our shared air, water, and soil resources, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) recognizes and rewards this critical role. CSP is an innovative program for working farms, built on the belief that we must enhance natural resource and environmental protection as we simultaneously produce profitable food, fiber, and energy. By providing comprehensive conservation assistance to whole farms, CSP offers farmers the opportunity to earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities like cover crops, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips, and the transition to organic farming – even while they work their lands for production.
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CSP covers more acres of working farm and ranch lands on a multi-year basis than any other federal conservation program. It is a comprehensive working lands conservation program designed to help farmers and ranchers protect and improve natural resources and the environment on productive and profitable farms. Through CSP, farmers and ranchers receive technical and financial assistance to actively manage and maintain existing conservation systems and to implement additional conservation activities on land in agricultural production.
CSP targets funding to:
Farmers and ranchers anywhere in the country can apply for CSP funding every year at any time of the year. Enrollment is competitive and, typically once each year, NRCS will rank applications and develop contracts with those farmers and ranchers who have the highest-ranking applications until funding for that ranking period is exhausted. If you submit an application after that year’s cutoff, NRCS will keep your application and consider it in the next round. The 2018 Farm Bill changed CSP from an acreage based program to a dollar based program, providing between $700 million and $1 billion in additional funding for new CSP enrollment each year, on top of the 70 million acres currently enrolled under previous farm bills.
Payments – CSP pays producers to improve, maintain, and actively manage conservation activities in place at the time of application and to adopt new conservation activities during the life of the five-year contract. Payment amounts are determined by multiple factors, including the costs incurred (for planning, design, materials, installation, labor, management, maintenance or training), income forgone, and expected conservation benefits. Additional factors include the:
The 2018 Farm Bill authorized increased payment rates for resource-conserving crop rotations, cover crop based activities, and advanced grazing management. Payments are also now available to assist in the development of a comprehensive conservation plan.
Payments are capped at $40,000 per year, or $200,000 over the life of the 5-year contract. In changing CSP from an acreage based to a dollar based program, the 2018 Farm Bill also eliminated the average payment rate of $18 per acre, while providing direction on how to fund the most effective and beneficial conservation activities. Payment amounts vary greatly, from lower-cost rangeland improvement contracts to mid-range pasture contracts to higher-range cropland contracts. Since 2016, all CSP contracts have a minimum annual payment of $1,500, should their otherwise assigned payment amount be less than that. Annual payments are made after October 1 every year.
Contract Renewals – All CSP contracts last for five years, with an option to apply to renew. Participants are eligible to renew for another five years if the farmer or rancher has met the terms of the preceding contract and is willing to adopt additional conservation activities or solve additional resource concerns. Prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, renewals were automatic provided that a participant met the eligibility requirements. The 2018 Farm Bill modified that process such that renewal applications are considered within the broader pool each year, but if accepted, can still renew before their initial contract expires.
Ranking Criteria – The 2014 Farm Bill removed the specific requirement for a measurement tool like the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) for the CSP ranking and evaluation process. While the CMT was still used for the 2015 and 2016 sign-up periods, it was eliminated for 2017 and beyond. Instead of replacing the CMT with only one new tool, however, NRCS has created a separate evaluation tool – the Conservation Evaluation Application Tool (CAET), a separate ranking tool – the Application, Evaluation, and Ranking Tool (AERT), and a separate payment schedule for conservation activities. The CAET remains in place for the 2019 sign-up, but NRCS is in the process of standing up a new evaluation tool, the Conservation Assessment Ranking Tool (CART), which will be in place beginning with the FY 2020 sign-up.
The CSP ranking system is based on how much farmers and ranchers have already done, and how much more they are willing to do, to address natural resource concerns. The 2018 Farm Bill simplified the ranking factors used to evaluate applications, modifying the primary ranking factors to be:
All private agricultural land, including cropland, pasture, and rangeland, is eligible to enroll in CSP.
Eligible land includes all acres of an agricultural operation under the effective control of a farmer or rancher, whether or not it is contiguous, and whether it is owned or rented. If land is not owned, a producer may be required to show that they have control over the property for the contract term as evidenced in a lease or rental agreement or a simple non-binding statement from the landowner. Applicants must enroll all acres that they operate, owned and rented. Additionally, landowners with expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts can enroll in CSP during the last year of their CRP contract for a seamless transition.
To qualify for CSP, farmers and ranchers must satisfy several criteria designed to address natural resource concerns that are designated as a priority for a particular state or region. At least five priority resource concerns will be selected for each state or region in the country. Typically, NRCS State Conservationists select the priority resource concerns either for their state as a whole or for each major watershed or eco-region in the state. Selecting priority resource concerns is done in consultation with State Technical Committees and Local Working Groups, which are subcommittees of the State Technical Committees. See below, or contact your local NRCS office, to learn more about state technical committees and local working groups.
Under a CSP contract, farmers and ranchers must demonstrate that they:
The contract will specify the new conservation activities that the producer agrees to install or adopt, and the existing conservation activities that the producer will maintain, manage, and improve.
Special priority is given to beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers to encourage their participation in CSP and their adoption of conservation practices on their farms. The 2018 Farm Bill retains the requirement for NRCS to set-aside 5 percent of acres enrolled in CSP to be made available for beginning farmers and ranchers and another 5 percent of acres for socially disadvantaged producers. These two pools of applicants will compete for funding amongst other beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, but not with farmers as a whole – thereby increasing their chances of securing a CSP contract.
Within these set-asides, preference is to be given to veteran farmers. Any set-aside funds or acres that are not used by a certain date during the fiscal year (to be determined by the Secretary of Agriculture) will be re-pooled so that they can be used by other producers in the programs.
CSP is currently the largest federal conservation program by acreage. More than 70 million acres of crop, forest, and pasture, and rangeland are currently enrolled in the program – accounting for nearly seven percent of farm and ranch land nationwide, a figure that will grow each year.
From 2009 – 2018, NRCS obligated more than $8 billion to CSP contract-holders across the country.
Since 2009, CSP contracts have helped farmers and ranchers:
Read more about farmers and ranchers that have benefited from CSP:
CSP sign up is continuous throughout the year, which means farmers can submit applications to enroll to their local NRCS office at any time during the year. However, applications are ranked and contracts entered at the state level just once each year. Typically, NRCS announces in the winter that they are going to be ranking applications and applicants then have a few months to submit the initial request to enroll. This means if the deadline to apply for that year is, for example, February 1, and a farmer turns in an application on February 2, the application will not be considered until the next year’s ranking. Timing can vary each year, so interested farmers and ranchers should contact their local NRCS office for more information on how to apply. More information on the FY 2019 sign-up period is available in NSAC’s updated CSP Information Alert.
The precursor to CSP, the Conservation Security Program, was first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill. This program evolved into the Conservation Stewardship Program in the 2008 Farm Bill and was reauthorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as the most recent 2018 Farm Bill. One of the most significant changes to CSP in the 2008 Farm Bill was that CSP became available in all states and counties each and every year. That structure is retained in the current version of CSP. The evolution from the Conservation Security Program to the Conservation Stewardship Program involved many substantial and important programmatic changes, which you can read about in our Farmers’ Guide to CSP.
The 2018 Farm Bill made a handful of significant changes to the program. In particular, the bill made changes to program funding, ranking criteria, the renewal process, and increased payments for the most effective conservation activities, comprehensive conservation planning, funding for organic participants, and coordination between EQIP and CSP.
CSP Funding – Most notably, the 2018 Farm Bill changes CSP from an acreage based program to a dollar based program, authorizing between $700 million and $1 billion in funding per year for new CSP enrollments, plus additional funding for CSP contracts that were initially enrolled under the previous farm bill. Under the previous farm bill, NRCS was authorized to enroll 10 million new acres in the program each year, while simultaneously enrolling eligible existing contracts for a renewal. The 2018 Farm Bill changes the renewals process, and subsequently the total funding available, such that funding for new contracts and renewals comes out of the same total funding pot, rather than additional funding being available for renewals. Through the combination of funding for existing contracts plus new CSP contracts, total CSP funding will not see an overall decrease during this five-year farm bill cycle. However, as a result of the funding level in the final year of this farm bill (2023), the total amount of baseline funding available for CSP in the next farm bill will be significantly decreased.
Conservation Stewardship Program Annual Funding (Includes funding for new and existing contracts)
|Fiscal Year||Total Funding Available ($ Millions)|
|5 yr total||$7,375|
|10 yr total||$12,584|
Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2018 Farm Bill for this program to be provided through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation. However, Congress does at times pass subsequent appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program below the authorized level, in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program. CSP is also subject to automatic cuts as part of an annual sequestration process established by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Therefore, despite its “mandatory” status, the funding level for a given year could be less than the farm bill dictates should the Appropriations Committees decide to raid the farm bill to fund other programs under its jurisdiction.
Ranking Criteria – The ranking criteria were simplified in the 2018 Farm Bill to ensure that the ranking of applications is based on two primary factors: the conservation in place on all applicable priority resource concerns at the time of application, and the degree to which the proposed conservation activities increase natural resource and environmental benefits. The fact that the second factor includes “the degree to which,” means that this ranking criteria requires more than just a proposed number of priority resource concerns – it also requires meaningful and verifiable levels of treatment.
Renewal Process – The 2018 Farm Bill modified the process through which participants with existing CSP contracts renew their five-year CSP contracts for an additional contract. Previously, CSP participants with expiring contracts could opt to renew their contract for an additional five-year period and be guaranteed a new contract so long as they met the terms of the original contract and agreed to adopt additional conservation as part of the next contract. The 2018 Farm Bill changed the renewal process such that participants can apply to renew, but they must compete for the same total pot of funding as new contracts. Previously, funding for renewals was guaranteed. While this does make it less of a guarantee that a renewal can be secured, conservation benefits achieved during an initial contract will be considered for those applying to renew, and those gains should make a renewal application extremely competitive within the total ranking pool. Participants who are eligible for renewal in the first year of implementing the new farm bill are eligible for a one-year extension of their CSP contract and payments, as NRCS works to transition over to the renewals changes made in the farm bill. This provides NRCS time to have the new renewals process in place, and those contract holders will be able to apply to renew in 2020, before their contracts expire. Accepted participants will still be able to reenroll without a gap in contract payments.
Comprehensive Conservation Planning – The 2018 Farm Bill makes clear that the development of a comprehensive conservation plan is an eligible CSP activity and further defines it as a plan that meets or exceeds the stewardship threshold for each identified priority resource concern. The farm bill sets a framework for payment for a comprehensive conservation plan, to be based on the number of priority resource concerns addressed in the plan, as well as the number of types of land uses included in the comprehensive conservation plan. A participant will be able to receive funding through a CSP contract to develop the plan, which is time and energy intensive, and then implement the plan through a subsequent CSP contract or through an additional conservation program in the future.
Increased Payments – The 2018 Farm Bill continues the supplemental payment option for Resource-Conserving Crop Rotations (RCCRs), as well as the availability of payments for producers who adopt or improve RCCRs. Additionally, the farm bill adds Advanced Grazing Management (including management-intensive rotational grazing) as eligible for supplemental payments, in order to provide equal treatment of advanced livestock conservation activities that provide significant soil health benefits. In order to ensure that the payment rates for RCCRs and Advanced Grazing Management accurately reflect the benefits provided and farmer investment required, the farm bill authorized increased payment rates for these activities – 150 percent of the payments otherwise determined by NRCS. The farm bill also authorized increased payment rates for all cover crop based activities, at 125 percent of the otherwise determined payment rate, to support and incentivize the benefits cover cropping provides. The increased rates for RCCRs and cover crops will be available beginning in FY 2019, and the payments for advanced grazing management available in FY 2020.
Organic Allocation – The 2018 Farm Bill makes several important improvements to increase access to CSP for organic and transitioning to organic producers. Recognizing the opportunity for CSP to support conservation efforts on organic certified farms, as well as to offer support for those in the process of transitioning to organic production, the farm bill authorizes NRCS to allocate funding to states to be used specifically for these producers. The organic funding allocation will be based upon two factors: 1) the number of certified and transitioning to organic operations in each state, and 2) the total organic acreage of the State. In developing these state specific allocation formulas, NRCS will be able to better promote the opportunity for coordination between CSP participation and organic transition and certification.
Coordination between EQIP and CSP – The 2018 Farm Bill authorizes streamlining and coordination between EQIP and CSP. Recognizing the enormous opportunity to better coordinate between NRCS’s two major working lands conservation programs, this new provision provides a framework for streamlining between EQIP and CSP, while retaining the unique purposes and functions that each individual program provides. The farm bill authorizes coordination in terms of applications, contracting, conservation planning, conservation practices, and related administrative procedures. While the farm bill did not authorize an automatic graduation option from EQIP to CSP, this provision recognizes the opportunity for producers to utilize EQIP as a stepping stone to achieve CSP eligibility and then to move from EQIP to CSP for more comprehensive conservation.
Section 2308 of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 amends Subchapter B of Chapter 4 of Subtitle D of title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985 (as redesignated by section 2301 of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) [16 U.S.C. 3838d et seq.]
Last updated in April 2019.