Policy Pulse: Conservation Program “Refresh” Offers Opportunities for Improvement

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a Farm Bill program that helps farmers and ranchers maintain and improve conservation practices on their land. From 2009 to 2014, CSP helped put conservation practices (from improved grazing management to planting cover crops) on almost 70 million acres of agricultural land, making it the largest conservation program in the country. The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is planning a major "refresh" of CSP for 2016. With a few changes, this program could better benefit farmers and conservation alike. Our suggestions include:

Put environmental benefits first. NRCS places tremendous weight on the need for additional conservation practices on a farm. New conservation practices are great, but with so much emphasis on what’s new, producers applying for funds to maintain or improve existing conservation practices get shut out. Instead, NRCS should 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.

Promote the best conservation practices. Conservation practices that offer the best environmental benefit are not the ones most commonly selected by CSP participants due to how NRCS ranks applications and pays producers. NRCS should ensure conservation enhancements with the best environmental impacts get the recognition they deserve through a higher ranking and more substantial payment.

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. CSP should provide supplemental payments to landowners who are willing to go the extra mile by creating a comprehensive conservation plan for their operations.

With the CSP "makeover" underway this fall, we’ll be working to get our message to NRCS. You can find more details on these (and a few more) recommendations for CSP in our blog at www.iwla.org.