Free tools help farmers, ranchers apply for Conservation Stewardship Program | TSLN.com

Free tools help farmers, ranchers apply for Conservation Stewardship Program

With a Feb. 27 deadline approaching, farmers and ranchers have only two weeks left to apply to enroll in the federal Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for 2015. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has released two free resources to help farmers and ranchers nationwide learn how the program works and navigate the application process: a brief Information Alert with application and deadline details for this year, and the more comprehensive Farmers' Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program. Both resources provide producers with detailed information on how to apply for and utilize the program to benefit their farms.

CSP is a whole-farm, comprehensive working lands conservation program administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). CSP rewards producers for the conservation and environmental benefits they produce on their working agricultural lands. The philosophy of the program is captured by the subtitle of the Farmers' Guide – rewarding farmers for how they grow what they grow. For example, CSP contract-holding farmers can receive payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities like cover crops, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips, and the transition to organic farming. Details for this year's program are available in a free Information Alert.

NSAC has also updated the popular Famers' Guide to incorporate changes to the program following the 2014 Farm Bill. It is intended to help family farmers, ranchers, and foresters understand the CSP enrollment process. In addition, it provides clear information on conservation activities eligible for CSP payments to improve conservation performance and environmental benefits.

The new Farmers' Guide includes step-by-step enrollment guidance, key definitions, and helpful hints for accessing the program now that it has been revised by the 2014 Farm Bill. It also includes a detailed look at the program's use under the 2008 Farm Bill (from 2009 through 2013). This data section includes analysis of program participation by geographic region, land use type, commodity type, and the top conservation practices and enhancements chosen by farmers and ranchers who have enrolled in the program.

For instance, the 2009-2013 data reveals that cover cropping, high-level Integrated Pest Management, and grazing management to improve wildlife habitat were among the most frequently chosen CSP conservation enhancements and that water quality and conservation (over 30 percent) and wildlife habitat (over 20 percent) enhancements accounted for over half of the new conservation choices of CSP participants. The data also reveal that more than 4,000 beginning farmers and ranchers enrolled in the program during those five years, representing nearly 10 percent of total participants.

CSP is the nation's largest conservation program by acreage and is widely popular among farmers and ranchers, with twice as many applicants as there is funding competing for enrollment. Since the program began in 2009, nearly 70 million acres of farm and ranch land have been enrolled in the program through 2014.

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CSP is a continuous sign-up program, meaning producers can apply to enroll at any time of the year. However, there is but one cut-off date at which point NRCS will rank all proposals on hand, based on environmental benefits, and determine which will be awarded contracts for that year. Interested farmers and ranchers must submit the initial application to their local NRCS office by February 27 to have their application considered for 2015.

CSP contract holders that enrolled in 2011 are now in the final year of their five-year contract and are therefore eligible to renew for another five years. Initial requests to renew must be submitted to local NRCS offices by March 31.

The Farmers' Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program is available for download on our website on our publications page at http://www.sustainableagriculture.net/publications.

Printed copies of the Guide can also be purchased. To inquire about ordering printed copies, email NSAC at intern@sustainableagriculture.net

–National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition