The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) published the interim final rule for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). This rule will govern how CSP works on the ground for farmers and ranchers.

Although the CSP Interim Final Rule is effective immediately, it is open for public comments, whereby farmers, ranchers, organizations and others can provide comments to the agency. The extended deadline for public comments is January 20, 2015.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is extending the public comment period on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) interim rule. Public comments will be accepted through January 20, 2015. Anyone can see summary of changes or http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/FarmBillRules for more information on the CSP statutory changes. Official notice of the change can be found in the Federal Register. Electronic comments must be submitted through regulations.gov, hand carried or mailed. 

“This extension will provide stakeholders with additional time to comment on the CSP interim rule,” said NRCS Chief Jason Weller. “At nearly 70 million acres, CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program. Input through the public comment process will help NRCS finalize a CSP rule that works for participants and continues to deliver greater conservation benefits for our Nation.”

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the premiere federal conservation program designed to reward farmers for adopting and managing smart conservation practices on working farm and ranch land. 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, resource-conserving crop rotations, conservation tillage, and the transition to organic farming.

“Farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders should take this opportunity to provide feedback to the agency to push for some needed changes to the CSP,” commented Track Bruckner, senior associate for Agriculture and Conservation Policy at the Center for Rural Affairs. “And the unconscionable, disproportionate and indefensible cuts made to CSP in the federal spending bill passed by Congress on December 13th make it even more vital that USDA get this rule right and maximize the economic, structural and environmental benefits of this crucial conservation program.”

“NRCS continues to put more weight behind adopting additional or new conservation practices versus simply focusing on the environmental outcomes,” continued Bruckner. “The farm bill is clear on this issue and provides a level playing field for both adopting new conservation practices, as well as maintenance of existing conservation practices and systems.”

Our long-standing argument against the agency’s position is that this puts the best stewards at a competitive disadvantage by providing greater financial reward to those who only adopt additional practices because they are being paid to do so, added Bruckner.

Bruckner noted several priority changes of the Center for Rural Affairs seen as needed in the CSP Interim Final Rule, including:

  • CSP should have room for all farmers: big or small, beginner or expert. Improve access to the program for beginning and small-acreage farmers, including farmers growing fruits and vegetables and other high value crops.
  • CSP should insure payment limitations are real. Close the loopholes that allow the largest farms to exceed the payment limits established by Congress. Include a requirement that beneficiaries be actively engaged in the farming operation.
  • Beginning Farmers: The rule needs to do much more to ensure beginning farmers are able to utilize the program effectively. In addition, there should be specific mention of working with beginning farmers gaining access to land through the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentive (CRP TIP). Under the CRP TIP, beginning farmers are to receive priority access to CSP when bringing that land back into production.

Other changes being pushed to the CSP Interim Final Rule include:

  • Minimum Contract Payment: While the rule continues the minimum contract payment for farms without a clear demonstration that they deserve, it fails to make this available for all small farmers who provide top-notch conservation.
  • Comprehensive Conservation Planning: The rule does not provide information regarding NRCS’ thinking on creating a supplemental payment for comprehensive conservation plans, despite the Farm Bill language that clarified that NRCS can and should offer payments for such plans.  They believe the planning payment will be added to the program starting in 2015, though would have preferred it to be explained in the rule to provide the opportunity for public comment.

People can visit the Federal Register website to make public comments on the interim rule: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/11/05/2014-26295/conservation-stewardship-program-csp-interim-rule

“This is our chance to steer federal policy, and federal dollars, in the right direction - towards farmers and ranchers to reward how they care for the land, not just for the crops they grow,” said Bruckner.