Farmers and ranchers troubled by the uncertainty of the 2018 Farm Bill received some good news this week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that producers with existing Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contracts would be given the opportunity to renew their contracts in 2019. When the 2014 Farm Bill expired on September 30, 2018, NRCS lost its authority to extend or renew expiring CSP contracts – many of which expire at the end of this year.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which has been a leading voice in the fight to protect CSP from being weakened or eliminated in the next farm bill, welcomed this much-needed administrative change. More than 4,000 producers with contracts expiring at the end of this year who submitted their initial applications to renew back in March will now have the opportunity to continue their comprehensive conservation work for up to five additional years.
With the 2018 Farm Bill Conference Committee leaders now reporting that a farm bill deal is imminent, farmers and food/farm organizations like NSAC will be closely watching for additional updates on CSP. We will also be on the look out for how the next farm bill (or a potential extension) addresses the many other conservation programs that have lost the authority to make new enrollments with the expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as how Conference leaders deal with the farm bill’s “tiny but mighty” programs, which lack permanent funding to continue beyond the five years of the 2014 Farm Bill.
Updates on CSP Contracts Set to Expire in 2018
CSP is focused on long-term, comprehensive conservation activities. Contracts, therefore, are made over a five-year initial term, with producers eligible to renew for an additional five years if they meet the terms of the original contract and agree to continue advancing their on-farm conservation efforts. Participants with an expiring CSP contract must renew before the end of the final year of their initial contract – meaning that the 4,000 producers who signed up for CSP in 2014 would need to have their new contracts signed and finalized by December 31 of this year. Without the recent extension given by NRCS, these producers would have lost the opportunity to renew their contracts entirely (meaning they would have to reapply from scratch, if the program is not eliminated in the next farm bill).
In order to address this problem, NRCS announced that 2014 CSP contract holders could extend the life of their original contract up to the full five-year statutory limit. None of the expiring contracts were signed prior to June 2014, so this provides at least until June of 2019 for NRCS to finalize the renewals for those who have already applied. Contract holders must sign contract modifications by the end of the year to be eligible.
This six-month extension of the deadline will be critical to ensuring that participants do not lose the chance to renew their contracts for an additional five years. This will not change payments that go out the door for these contracts (as they have already been paid out), but will ensure that producers are eligible for a renewed contract in fiscal year 2019.
NRCS Outreach Critical
NSAC is pleased that NRCS has taken this timely action to ensure that CSP participants who have already applied to extend their conservation efforts do not lose the opportunity to do so. In order to ensure that eligible farmers and ranchers are fully aware of the opportunity, however, immediate outreach to eligible participants will be critical. NSAC urges NRCS to undertake immediate and direct outreach to CSP contract holders so that they can take advantage of this important opportunity.
If you (or someone you know) applied to renew your CSP contract earlier this spring, NRCS will be contacting you to modify your contract before the December 31 deadline. If you haven’t already heard from NRCS, but did apply for a renewal of your contract, please contact your local NRCS office to ensure you don’t miss out on the opportunity to renew your CSP contract next year.
Farm Bill Uncertainty Still Looms
All of these recent efforts could be undercut, however, if the next farm bill eliminates CSP entirely or if CSP is not given renewed authority in any possible farm bill extension. NSAC continues to urge farm bill conferees to pass a farm bill with a strong conservation title that protects and enhances CSP, and will update this post following any substantive farm bill progress.
We thank NRCS for making this important administrative modification, and we urge Congress to pass a final farm bill this year that invests in critical conservation programs like CSP.