The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the 2016 sign-up period for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest working lands conservation program. CSP supports farmers and ranchers as they introduce and expand conservation on their land in agricultural production.

Farmers and ranchers have until March 31 to complete the initial CSP application, which consists of a simple form that asks for basic information regarding land ownership, type of production, and contact information. While applicants can sign up for CSP anytime throughout the year, those who miss the March 31 deadline will not be considered until 2017.

This year’s sign-up deadline carries particular significance, as a major program overhaul is scheduled for 2017. In order for producers to enroll in CSP under its existing structure, ranking process, and current conservation activities, they must apply by the March 31 deadline.

Existing CSP participants with contracts set to expire later this year also have until March 31 to apply to renew their five-year contracts. All CSP contracts last for five years and are renewable; hence farmers who signed contracts in 2012 must renew them this year to remain in the program for the next five years (2017-21).

“The 2016 CSP sign-up window has direct implications for more than 20 million acres of land in agricultural production, including 10 million new acres to be enrolled and an additional 12 million acres that were enrolled in 2012 and are now up for renewal,” said Alyssa Charney, Policy Specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “CSP supports advanced stewardship of farm and ranch lands, but farmers and ranchers must get their applications in on time to make this possible.”

CSP offers payments to farmers and ranchers for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding advanced conservation activities.

"CSP supports a wide variety of conservation practices including cover cropping and crop rotation, managed rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, conservation buffer enhancement, and transitioning to organic cropping or grazing systems," said Charney. "By rewarding the introduction and ongoing management of these advanced conservation practices, CSP helps farmers and ranchers address the critical resource concerns in their watersheds or regions while also profitably producing food, fiber, and energy."

While the 2016 enrollment period and program structure mirrors the 2015 sign-up period in terms of the application ranking process, payment rates, and available conservation activities, this year’s announcement does include one important change that benefits smaller acreage farms. In order to improve access for small acreage, high value operations, USDA will now set a $1,500 annual minimum contract payment floor.

This represents an increase of $500 over the previous $1,000 annual minimum. The $1,000 annual minimum floor moreover, was only available for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, whereas the new $1,500 annual minimum is now available to all farmers. Hence the new range for CSP payments per farm per year is between $1,500 and $40,000.

“NSAC applauds NRCS for making this change to more appropriately reward superior environmental performance for all operations, regardless of their size,” said Charney. “It is important that all of agriculture has a fair opportunity to be part of the solution to critical environmental issues.”

In order to support producers going through the application process, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has released its CSP Information Alert with step-by-step sign-up and enrollment details, including a complete list of all conservation activities that enrollees will have to choose from as they consider their CSP options.

In addition to the Information Alert, NSAC has also published a more detailed Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which includes enrollment guidance, key definitions, explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program.

The CSP Information Alert and The Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program are available for free download on the NSAC website at: http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications.

Printed copies of the Farmers’ Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies, email NSAC at intern@sustainableagriculture.net.