For the past few weeks on the Beginning Farmer Forum, as discussions on the next farm bill challenge us to think about how the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) can best assist farmers and landowners in reaching conservation goals, we have focused on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP can help beginning farmers achieve efficiencies in their business by providing technical assistance and incentive payments to establish installations or enhance practices that can reduce input costs or give CSP participants a marketing advantage.
Farmers interested in CSP can consider “bundles” of enhancement activities that complement each other to secure even greater efficiencies. Each bundle has a list of three or more mandatory practices, and many bundles have another list from which the farmer chooses additional practices, to earn the advantages of using a bundle. This allows farmers to adapt their participation in the program to their farm while ensuring their efforts help achieve conservation goals.
Some of the bundles in CSP, including crop bundles, range and pasture bundles, regionally focused bundles, and the Working Lands for Wildlife bundle, can help farmers improve soil health. We’ve discussed the potential environmental benefits of improved soil health in a previous BFF post; these benefits may also enhance an operation’s profitability by letting farmers get by with fewer fertility or crop protection inputs.
Utilizing bundles makes a CSP application more competitive, and the successful application using bundles will receive a higher payment than similar applications seeking payment for unbundled practices.
CSP was implemented by NRCS more recently than the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), so it may be more difficult for some NRCS Service Centers to work with you on CSP than on other programs. In 2016, NRCS obligated $1.13 M total, including technical and financial assistance, through CSP contracts, compared to $1.45 M through EQIP. By comparison, in 2010, the agency committed $389,813 through CSP and $1.18 M through EQIP. CSP obligations did not reach $1 million until 2014, which indicates that many service centers have not been as familiar with the program for as long as EQIP. If you want to use CSP, ask your NRCS field staff about the program and learn as much as you can about it.