Often referred to as the largest conservation program by acreage in the United States, the Conservation Stewardship Program (“CSP”) implemented by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”) is a voluntary program designed to help agricultural producers protect and improve natural resources on working lands. A relatively new program, more than 70 million acres of agricultural land have been a part of the program. Through CSP, participants receive technical and financial assistance to manage and maintain existing conservation systems and to implement new ones. CSP specifically directs funding towards addressing concerns such as water quality, soil erosion, air quality, biodiversity, pollinator habitat, carbon sequestration, and energy conservation. The following is a general overview of the program and how it functions.
The program that would eventually evolve into the CSP was first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill. That program, known as the Conservation Security Program, was a voluntary conservation program which provided payments and technical assistance to farmers for maintaining and improving natural resources. In the 2008 Farm Bill, the program evolved into the Conservation Stewardship Program. The program has been reauthorized in both the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills, albeit with a few changes.
The overall structure of the CSP is straightforward. Eligible producers apply to NRCS for a conservation stewardship contract. Each contract lasts for five years, and incorporates a conservation plan created by NRCS and the producer. In exchange for implementing the conservation plan, NRCS provides the producer with annual payments. After the end of five years, the producer can seek to renew the contract.
Agricultural producers through the United States can apply for to CSP every year at any point in time. However, enrollment is competitive, and not every application is accepted. According to the CSP regulations, an applicant for the program must demonstrate that they meet or exceed the stewardship threshold requirement. 7 C.F.R. § 1470.20(b). The term “stewardship threshold” is defined as “the level of management required […] to conserve and improve the quality and condition of a natural resource[.]” 7 C.F.R. § 1470.3. To meet the stewardship threshold requirement, a CSP applicant must demonstrate that they have the level of management necessary to conserve and improve the quality of at least two “priority resource concerns,” defined as a natural resource “that is likely to be addressed successfully through implementation of conservation activities under this program.” 7 C.F.R. § 1470.20(b)(1), 7 C.F.R. § 1470.3. In addition to meeting the stewardship threshold requirement, CSP applicants must also show that by the end of the conservation stewardship contract, their operation would meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for at least one additional priority resource concern. 7 C.F.R. § 1470.20(b)(2). Finally, the applicant must also include a map or photograph that identifies the applicant’s agricultural operation and marks out the land which is eligible for CSP. 7 C.F.R. § 1470.20(b)(3).
When evaluation CSP applications for new enrollment, NRCS ranks the applications based on a series of factors. The agency will consider the overall benefits which would result from conservation treatment on all identified priority resource concerns at the time of application; the degree to which the conservation activities proposed in the application would increase environmental benefits; and any other necessary factures to ensure that local priority resource concerns are effectively addressed. 7 C.F.R. 1470.20(c)(2). About once a year, NRCS ranks the applications and enrolls the highest-ranking applicants until funding for that particular ranking period runs out.
Once a producer has been accepted to CSP, NRCS and the producer work together to develop a conservation stewardship plan. The plan is required to contain a record of the producer’s conservation goals, the schedule for implementing conservation activities, identification of priority resource concerns, benchmark data on the condition of existing conservation activities at the time of enrollment, a map of the agricultural operation, and any other information NRCS determines is necessary.
Finally, NRCS and the producer will enter into a CSP contract. CSP contracts last for five years, and incorporate the conservation stewardship plan. They also state the payment amount that NRCS has agreed to provide to the participant, and permit all economic uses of the producer’s land which are consistent with the conservation purposes of the contract. 7 C.F.R. 1470.21(b). After the initial five-year contract expires, the producer can resubmit an application and be added back into the applicant pool.
Payments made by NRCS to CSP participants are annual, and are typically paid after October 1. 7 C.F.R. 1470.24(e). The payment amounts vary, and are calculated according to a variety of factors including costs incurred by the producer, income the producer has foregone as a result of participating in CSP, expected conservation benefits, and other factors determined by NRCS. 7 C.F.R. 1470.24(a)(4). While the payments vary, each CSP contract is limited to $200,000 over the five-year contract period. 7 C.F.R. 1470.24(h).
In order to apply for a CSP contract, the applicant must meet the eligibility requirements. First, an eligible CSP applicant must be the owner or operator of an agricultural operation that is in the Farm Service Agency (“FSA”) farm records management system. 7 C.F.R. 1470.6(a)(1). If a producer’s operation is not in the FSA system, then they will not be eligible for CSP. An eligible producer must also participate in the daily management and administration of the agricultural operation, share in the risk of producing a crop, and share in the crop available for marketing that is produced by the operation. 7 C.F.R. 1470.6(a)(2). Additionally, producers eligible for CSP must have the necessary control over the land where their agricultural operation in located to implement the conservation activities that may be included in a CSP contract. 7 C.F.R. 1470.6(a)(3). Without the control required to carryout the CSP contract, a producer will not be able to enter into a CSP contract.
Finally, not all lands are eligible to be enrolled in CSP. Specifically excluded from CSP eligibility are lands which are already enrolled in CSP, land enrolled in a wetland reserve easement through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and in some instances, land used for crop production after December 20, 2018. 7 C.F.R. 1470.6(c). Otherwise, all privately owned agricultural land is eligible for enrollment in CSP.
The 2018 Farm Bill both reauthorized CSP, and made several changes to the program. Those included changes to program funding, ranking criteria, the renewal process, and increased payments for certain conservation activities.
With regard to program funding, the 2018 Farm Bill changed CSP from an acreage based program to a dollar based program. Prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, NRCS was authorized to enroll a specific number of acres in CSP per year. Now, NRCS is authorized to spend a specific dollar amount per year. Although the change is not expected to significantly impact program participants, it is a significant change in the overall structure of CSP.
In addition to altering the funding structure, the 2018 Farm Bill also simplified the ranking structure for applications, and altered the renewal process so that contracts were no longer automatically renewed if the producer met eligibility requirements. Instead, producers who would like to renew their contracts must submit their renewal requests into the general ranking pool. The 2018 Farm Bill also authorized increased payment rates for certain conservation activities including certain crop rotations, and all cover crop based activities. For more information on the 2018 Farm Bill changes to CSP, see here or here.
Although relatively new, CSP has quickly become the largest conservation program in the United States. It has helped agricultural producers voluntarily implement conservation activities on over 70 million acres of farmland. While there are certain eligibility requirements that must be met in order to enroll in the program, CSP is a good resource for farmers who want increase their conservation activities.
To read the CSP regulations, click here.
For NRCS resources on CSP, click here.
For more National Agricultural Law Center resources on conservation programs, click here.