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The Conservation Stewardship Program is Great. Here Are Five Ways It Can Be Better.

08/28/2015

The Farm Bill is how Congress funds agricultural programs in the United States, and it includes huge investments in conservation programs. But even after the program rules are written and the funding is finalized, there’s still room for improvement.

Take the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example. CSP helps producers maintain and improve conservation systems and practices on their farms. Through CSP, farmers can receive payments to implement practices that protect water and air quality, conserve energy, and protect wildlife habitat. From 2009 to 2014, CSP helped put conservation practices on almost 70 million acres of agricultural land. That makes it the largest conservation program in the country!

This year, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that it would conduct a “refresh” of CSP – a total makeover of the program. Sure, makeovers can go horribly wrong (bowl cut? bellbottoms?), but we’re looking at this as an opportunity to make much-needed changes to a great program.

Here are five ways we think the Conservation Stewardship Program can be stronger and work better for farmers and conservationists alike.

1. Put environmental benefits first. This seems like a no-brainer for a conservation program, but overall environmental benefits aren’t always at the forefront when producers are competing for CSP contracts. NRCS places tremendous weight on the need for additional conservation practices on a farm. New conservation practices are great, but with so much emphasis what’s new, producers applying for funds to maintain or improve conservation practices already in place get shut out.

NRCS should simply look at the environmental benefits any CSP contract can offer. It’s a simple way to ensure we get more “bang” for the conservation “buck” and the best conservationists are not excluded from the program.

2. Promote the best conservation practices – and set the bar high. The conservation practices that rank highest in terms of environmental benefit are not the ones most commonly selected by CSP participants. This means that farmers may pass up a really valuable effort – such as planting cover crops to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality – in favor of easier but less beneficial practices.

NRCS should make sure that the conservation enhancements with the best environmental impacts get the recognition they deserve through a higher-ranking score and more substantial payment.

3. Remember that soil health matters. The Izaak Walton League is known as the defenders of soil, air, woods, waters, and wildlife. That first one can be easy to overlook, but soil health is absolutely critical to all other conservation efforts. One of the best ways to promote soil health is through what’s called a “resource-conserving crop rotation.” That means planting a crop every once in a while that can improve soil quality and reduce erosion, such as perennial grass. Unfortunately, NRCS greatly reduced payments for this invaluable practice.

CSP has a lot of potential to improve soil quality. NRCS should help the program realize that potential by using higher payments to encourage soil-enhancing practices.

4. Don’t forget about small farms! CSP provides conservation payments by the acre, so small farms are at a disadvantage when it comes to making conservation economically viable. A massive operation can accumulate large payments for a single conservation practice, but implementing the same practice at the small family farm down the road may be cost-prohibitive. Raising the minimum contract payment will help ensure farms of all sizes can participate in CSP.

Closing loopholes that allow some farmers to receive as much as double the CSP payment limit could help free up a few more resources for smaller farms as well!

5. Reward farmers who take conservation planning seriously. Adding a few conservation enhancements here and there is helpful, but comprehensive conservation planning is critical to ensure long-term, robust environmental benefits on the farm. Such planning requires a significant investment of time, labor, and money on behalf of the producer. We should reward landowners who are willing to go the extra mile by creating a comprehensive conservation plan for their operations by providing them with a supplemental payment added to their contract.

These are the League’s top five priorities for the CSP, but we need your help to make our “wish list” a reality as we enter the uncharted territory of a full program makeover! Contact John Sisser, IWLA Conservation Associate, at jsisser@iwla.org for more information on the program and ways you can make a difference for conservation.