Conservation Stewardship Program is a popular program to make agriculture more environmentally friendly – Agweek
BISMARCK, ND — The Conservation Stewardship Program is one of the federal government’s most popular tools for creating “working land” in agriculture
more environmentally friendly
Todd C. Hagel, state conservation assistant for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bismarck, North Dakota, said the CSP is a five-year voluntary commitment and essentially helps move the activities of current conservation of a landowner at a higher level.
“While they are currently addressing soil erosion, we are taking it a step further, looking at more preventative type measures rather than just reacting to existing concerns,” Hagel said.
All landowners who have had control of the land in the past year and operated it can apply. A caveat is that the CSP contract must encompass all land that a landowner controls and operates (cropland, rangeland, agricultural land, associated forest land, and farms).
There are three types of CSP registrations. 1) Classic, for new applicants or former applicants who have generally left the program for at least one year; 2) Grassland Conservation Initiative 3) Renewals.
About 20-30% of expiring contracts are brought back into the CSP through the renewal process. They can also apply through the Classic program, under an enhanced management system.
Applicants must address at least two main “resource concerns” for each land use to be considered. If the application is for grassland, the Farm Service Agency must approve eligible parcels.
And they agree that they will meet another resource goal. These could include dealing with weed encroachment or degraded grass conditions, or things like fire management, pest pressure, loss of pesticides on the ground, loss of pesticides on the ground.
The owner achieves an additional goal by adding or “enhancing” a practice — sod seeding, grassed waterway, diversion, planned grazing system.
The pay rate is based on a formula that takes into account what the producer is already doing and what the improvements will be, all multiplied by the total number of acres.
“And you’re capped at $40,000 as an individual, $80,000 if you’re a joint venture,” Hagel said, adding, “Typical cost is about $36,000 (per year) for a contract of five years.”
The plans are designed around a ‘conservation plan’, in which the NRCS tries to help build the producer’s resilience to climate change or tackle soil erosion.
Many producers want to promote wildlife. They may know a lot about growing corn, soybeans, flax, or canola, but the NRCS can help them design a crop rotation or add cover crops or a little grass planting to help wildlife and soil health.
Most took care of their major soil erosion issues through their rotation in the EQIP, before the CSP, which is just a bit more.
CSP can be used to add water for grazing. While cover crops are a popular topic, NRCS works with the landowner on pasture management – both for livestock health and wildlife value.
NRCS can work with producers on manure sampling to understand the value of how livestock use the forage and for nutrient monitoring. They can help monitor the amount and timing of pesticides or help farmers get started in precision farming. Some were no-till, and this program adds enough economic value to switch to continuous no-till.
From 2017 to 2022, the North Dakota NRCS had 1,073 active CSP contracts.
“This is by far our most competitive and sought after program,” Hagel said. “Producers like it. It’s an opportunity to take a good steward and step it up a notch in their ability to manage the land. The NRCS in North Dakota can only fund about 15% to 20% of all CSP requests.
Prior to 2018, each state did not receive a specific allocation, so North Dakota used $23 million to $27 million per year, as did South Dakota. Since then, the head of the NRCS has adjusted the program so that the Midwest is a user more proportional to the eastern and western states.
In the current budget year, North Dakota received just over $15 million, but got an additional $8 million to help fund its backlog because not all states used the their full allocation and the excess was redistributed.
Applicants “compete” for approvals with other landowners in their neighborhood in the state, so they compete on roughly similar farmland. Individuals in the program who wish to withdraw for extenuating circumstances (including death or family hardship) may request waivers to repay funds.
The NRCS checks approximately 5% of their contracts on the spot. “If a person certifies himself that he planted all these acres to cover crops and we fail to verify our 5%, then he is lying to the government, lying to his neighbors that he planted these crops of blanket,” says State Conservationist Mary Podoll.
Neighbors are a source of information. In the event of repayment, the NRCS may put the client farmer on a debt register, which could involve payments they would receive from the Farm Service Agency. And cases of fraud prevent future CSP qualification.