The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the beginning of the 2017 signup period for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest working lands conservation program. This year’s signup announcement is particularly noteworthy as it is the first year that major programmatic changes will be in place after two years of intensive planning by USDA.
The program reinvention is significant given the considerable reach of CSP: More than 70 million acres are already enrolled, and more than 20 million acres will be enrolled or renewed in 2017. Total program enrollment is expected to exceed 80 million acres by next year.
Farmers and ranchers interested in enrolling have until Feb. 3, 2017, to complete the initial CSP application, which is a simple form that asks for basic information regarding land ownership, type of production and contact information. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices will begin processing applications on Nov. 14, and initial information on the restructured program is available on the new CSP portal at www.nrcs.usda.gov/csp. Although applicants can sign up for CSP anytime throughout the year, those who miss the Feb. 3 deadline will not be considered for the program until 2018.
The full details on the reinvented CSP have not yet been released. However, based on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) analysis of the materials and information made available to date, the new version of the program appears to back away from the previous practice of awarding ranking points and payments based on the expected conservation benefits of activities in a farmer’s CSP plan.
“If the as-of-yet-unreleased materials and tools confirm this tentative conclusion, it will represent a major missed opportunity by USDA to continue and enhance the role of CSP as a performance- and results-based program,” NSAC said.
“While we support the stated goals of the reinvention – making CSP more transparent, accessible, flexible and farmer friendly – we are disappointed in the lack of transparency throughout the process,” NSAC said. “Even now, following the announcement of the 2017 signup period, there are many important details and new tools, like the eligibility and ranking processes and payment structure for conservation activities, that are not yet available to farmers and ranchers.”
NSAC said it is pleased to see that the final Application Evaluation & Ranking Tool (AERT) was revised to include a question to addresses an applicant’s current level of stewardship; however, it is unclear exactly how significantly this question (#3) will factor into a participant’s overall ranking score. “Similarly, while we understand that the estimated conservation benefits of planned activities will be factored into the ranking score (through an 'efficiency score'), we have yet to see any details regarding exactly how this will be determined,” NSAC said.
Finally, CSP is unique among conservation programs for rewarding producers on the basis of their current and expected conservation outcomes. NRCS has publicly provided information on how payments for a participant’s baseline level of conservation will be determined but has not released information on the “payment schedules” for all conservation activities available through CSP. Access to this information is critical for a potential participant to decide what enrollment in CSP would mean for their operation.
In addition to the opportunity to enroll in new contracts, existing CSP participants will be able to renew their five-year CSP contracts for an additional five years. For farmers with 2013 contracts that expire after 2017, the deadline to apply to renew their contracts is anticipated to be sometime in March or April 2017.