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Conservation plan needs cooperation

USDA’s new Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, is an incremental improvement that represents learning from past farm programs. The new CSP is a “green payments” type of program that offers extraordinary opportunity, especially if farmers talk it over with their landlords about the land they manage together.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill to contract with farmers to put the CSP on 12.8 million acres per year nationwide. So over the next three years, it would enroll nearly 39 million acres if enough farmers sign up and participate in it.

The new CSP offers a continuous sign-up, so farmers can go to a local NRCS office and apply for entry into the program at any time.

Applications are evaluated and ranked according to both current and planned conservation practices, and the applications that meet the conservation criteria are accepted into the CSP. The cutoff date for applications to be included in the first ranking period was Sept. 30, 2009.

The new CSP goes beyond other soil and water conservation cost-sharing programs to encourage farmers to move toward sustainable farming systems. It builds on the previous Conservation Security Program, which despite its geographic and funding limitations, turned out to be very popular with conservation-minded farmers.

Key Points

• About 3.9 million acres can be enrolled in conservation program in next three years.

• The new Conservation Stewardship Program offers a continuous sign-up.

• Poll: 74% of farm owners care about farming’s impact on soil, water quality.

Goes beyond cost sharing

This new and improved CSP is available everywhere, not just in selected watersheds. It clearly rewards farmers who implement comprehensive conservation planning changes, with payments based on the acres of cropland, pasture or woodland managed to enhance the environment.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, as part of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, has advocated for this kind of program for many years.

To take advantage of the new opportunities in CSP, landowners and renters are going to have to work together. This is challenging in a state like Iowa where 60% of farmland is rented, and on average, farmland renters work with three different landlords.

Farmland owners and operators need to know that only the farm operator is eligible for CSP payments, and the entire farm operation should be included in the conservation effort. One implication of this: Just one negative or apathetic landlord may discourage a tenant from seeking a five-year CSP contract (renewable for another five years).

Owners need to participate

CSP provides good reason to sit down at the table soon to discuss conservation and the needs of the Iowa farmland they own and manage. When farm operators were asked about landlord attitudes in the 2008 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, they reported that 74% of farm owners do care about how farming impacts soil and water quality. Yet, only about 41% of landowners were reported to be participating in conservation decisions.

Whether or not landowners and renters share the same conservation ethic, the CSP Conservation Measurement Tool, which ranks the benefits of each application, can aid discussions, such as the conservation management options that fit a farm and how those efforts score in the CSP program.

The new CSP reduces the barriers to conservation. It provides considerable economic reward for serious conservation farming. In coming years, it can also change the landscape of rural Iowa, improving the land’s productivity while enhancing wildlife habitat and water and air quality.

To find out more about USDA’s new Conservation Stewardship Program, read “The Farmer’s Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program.” The publication is available at www.sustainableagriculture.net.

Sand is public policy director of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.