USDA Releases Final Land Conservation Rule

Farmers have one week left to enroll in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program for 2010.

by Dani Yokhna

Land conservation
Courtesy Stock.XCHNG
Farmers can apply for the USDA’s
Conservation Stewardship Program through June 25, 2010.

Farmers and ranchers wanting to enroll in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program created by the 2008 Farm Bill have until June 25, 2010, to submit their applications. This date has been extended from the original June 11, 2010, deadline.

“Voluntary conservation practices by private landowners and producers are an essential part of our effort to improve soil and water quality,” said agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack. “Broad and diverse participation in the CSP program will provide producers with many benefits, such as enhancing wildlife habitat and helping to mitigate the impact of climate change.”

According to Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the enrollment extension will allow farmers and ranchers to examine the final ruling of the conservation program, which aims to provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to engage in agricultural land conservation activities.

“The bottom line is this is a strong program that producers engaged in advanced land stewardship should seriously consider,” he says.

After filing the CSP application form, farmers and ranchers will also need to schedule an appointment to complete the CSP Conservation Management Tool, a set of questions related to their existing farm conservation baseline and new improvements they are willing to consider on their farms. The CMT process is expected to last through mid-July, at which point USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service will rank all the proposals to determine the best offers for enrollment during the 2010 sign-up. Farm visits and contract signing will occur over the late summer months. 

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Each year, CSP will enroll 12.8 million acres of crop, pasture, range and private non-industrial forest lands from producers of all operation sizes and geographic locations. By the fall of 2011, the new CSP expects to have more than 38 million acres of land enrolled, making it larger in scope than the Conservation Reserve Program.

The final rule, released this month, makes several important changes to the interim rule that was used for the 2009 sign-up and ranking.

It includes a new minimum contract payment to encourage participation in the program by small-acreage, high-value fruit and vegetable farms that, despite the ability to provide important environmental benefits, might otherwise receive payments so small as to not justify participation.  However, the final rule limits the minimum contract payment to beginning, minority and limited-resource farmers only. If an annual contract payment amount would otherwise be less than $1,000, the final rule allows NRCS to increase the payment rate.

Special CSP payments for the adoption of “resource-conserving crop rotations” will be based on the definition used in the original Conservation Security Program (2004 to 2008) rather than the more expansive definition used for last year’s sign-up, which included rotations consisting only of commodity program crops and did not include forages, perennials or green manure crops.

Also, in the preamble to the final rule, NRCS has announced that cropland that has been converted to grass and is being used as pasture for grazing will now be treated as “pastured cropland” and afforded a higher payment rate that was available in 2009.

While final data on the 2009 CSP sign-up is not yet available from USDA, the preamble to the final rule states that farmer payments under signed CSP contracts are running at about a 63 percent/37percent split between rewards for actively managing and maintaining existing conservation activities and encouraging new, additional conservation activity.

“There have been years of pent-up demand for this program since it first became law in 2002,” says Hoefner. “Now, eight years later, it has had its first full-scale, nationwide sign-up, and many of the best stewards have responded and been accepted into the program. Over time, as the program expands and a wider range of farms become competitive, the ratio will naturally move toward balance.”

In the final rule, however, the USDA announced its intention to change the payment formula away from the Farm Bill’s directive for equal treatment for managing, improving, and adopting conservation activities. New practice adoption will receive a higher payment rate than ongoing conservation activities.

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