NRCS publishes final CSP rule, but NFU not satisfied
The Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently released the final rule to update the Conservation Stewardship Program. as directed by the 2018 farm bill with feedback from agricultural producers and others.
“NRCS has prioritized the implementation of the 2018 farm bill, including important changes to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is designed to help farmers put more robust conservation activities in place,” said Kevin Norton, acting NRCS chief.
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said, “We are pleased that USDA incorporated some improvements in its final rule, most notably its inclusion of soil health as a priority.”
“However, the rule does not elaborate on how this goal will be achieved. Moving forward, we encourage the agency to provide more specifics about the ways in which the program will help farmers build soil health in order to sequester atmospheric carbon, increase yields, and prevent erosion.
“There are several other measures that would enhance CSP’s efficacy, as we enumerated in our earlier comments. Currently, the contract evaluation process gives preference to first-time applicants over previous recipients, essentially penalizing those engaged in long-term stewardship.
“To encourage an ongoing commitment to conservation, USDA should instead judge applications on their overall environmental benefits. Furthermore, the program disproportionately helps the largest farms by allowing payments up to $400,000 for joint operations. CSP statute clearly limits payments to $200,000 for any operation, and USDA should enforce that for all farming operations, regardless of size.
“To our disappointment, USDA failed to include either of these recommendations in its final rule. As a result, many of CSP’s structural flaws will go unaddressed, and the program will continue to fall short of its potential.”
USDA said the final rule better aligns CSP with NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program through common applications, contracting operations, conservation planning, conservation practices, and related administrative procedures.
NRCS received more than 600 comments on an interim final rule that was published in November 2019. Based on that feedback, the agency made the following changes in the final rule:
• Added emphasis to enhancing soil health as a way that program participants can achieve program goals.
• Modified language pertaining to locally led conservation by specifying that NRCS will solicit input from the State Technical Committees and by adding new Tribal Conservation Advisory Councils.
• Specified that, with local working groups, these entities will “develop state-level technical, outreach and program materials.”
• Made minor edits to and amended definitions for “enhancement,” “management-intensive rotational grazing,” and “resource-conserving crop.”
• Provided clarity to producers by adjusting language related to the set-aside for historically underserved producers.
• Adjusted the language for early start waivers to align with EQIP and reflect that the provision applies only to new conservation activities.
• Allowed for more than one contract renewal but extend the two-year program ineligibility period to include those who apply for renewal and are not selected.
Initial updates to CSP included in the interim final rule:
• Increased payment rates for adoption of cover crop rotations.
• Introduced a new supplemental payment for advanced grazing management.
• Created a one-time payment for developing a comprehensive conservation plan.
• Provided specific support for organic and transitioning to organic production activities.
• NRCS state offices announce sign-up periods for CSP. Additionally, existing CSP participants may have an opportunity to renew their contracts in the first half of the fifth year of their five-year contract. ❖