If you're a conservation-minded farm operator, have done some conservation work and are willing to do more, you may be able to boost your farm income by enrolling in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
"You have to apply, and compete against other applicants, but I think any operator who's already done some conservation work and is willing to do more should consider the program," says Tom O'Connor, CSP coordinator for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Iowa. "The more complete conservation you've done, and the more you are willing to do, the higher you'll rank and the more payment you will receive."
O'Connor notes the program is size neutral -- that is, stewardship of the land is evaluated on the acres you have -- small operations can score or rank as high as large operations.
If you looked at the program when it first came out as the Conservation Security Program in the 2002 Farm Bill, you should know that both the name and details have changed. The early program was available only in selected watershed areas, and at designated signup times. "Now the Conservation Stewardship Program is available nationwide on a continuous basis, with announced cut-off dates for ranking and funding applications," O'Connor says.
"We now use a conservation measurement tool that determines an applicant's conservation performance for existing and new activities, and rankings and payments are decided by that performance," O'Connor says.
The program is funded to enroll up to 12 million acres nationally each year, at an average payment of $18 per acre. States are allocated an acreage each year for the program, and unused acres from one state are re-allocated to states with more applications. Farmers who rank high enough and get applications accepted then enter into a five-year contract with NRCS that spells out what work has been done, what will be done as enhancements in the future, and the payments that will be made by NRCS.
Payments are made in the fall as a reward for conservation stewardship. In Iowa, about 700 contracts have been signed for each of the past three years, consuming all the funding available to the state for the program.
"It's been one of our most popular programs," O'Connor says, "and I believe that's because it's a rewards program. Farmers feel good about receiving payments based on good stewardship."
Enhancements could surprise
O'Connor says some farmers might be surprised at the wide range of enhancements they can get paid for that could fit well into their operations. "You get paid for what's already in place, but you also get ranked and paid for the enhanced practices you agree to do in the future," O'Connor says. For instance, you get a bump in your annual payment by planting more grasses or trees to widen existing conservation buffers, by using a cover crop that contains a legume, or by taking plant tissue tests and analyzing them to improve nitrogen management on the farm.
Eligible lands include cropland, grassland, prairie land, improved pastureland, rangeland, nonindustrial private forestland, and agricultural land under jurisdiction of an Indian tribe. "The way to think about CSP is that you get an annual payment for five years for the total stewardship you are performing on your operation," O'Connor says. An operator can have more than one CSP contract, but payments for all contracts combined are limited to $40,000 in any one year and to $200,000 over the five years.
A two-page CSP self-screening checklist is available to help you see if CSP might work for you. The checklist highlights basic information about CSP eligibility requirements, contract obligations and potential payments. Your local NRCS office can help you with it.
Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.