CSP: Working out the Warts

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The USDA announced this week that farmers have until June 11 to fill out an application for the latest round of Conservation Stewardship Program contracts. That’s a narrow window of opportunity at a time of year when time is precious in Farm Country. But if farmers do have the time, it’s worth stopping by their local NRCS office and checking out CSP, warts and all. Right now, it’s the best bet out there for federal policy that rewards environmentally-friendly practices on working farmland.

CSP was created by the 2002 Farm Bill and strengthened in the 2008 Farm Bill through additional funding and a process that makes all farmers eligible every year.The initial sign-up for the revamped CSP was held last August and September.

NRCS statistics show that Minnesota was well represented in the 2009 CSP sign-up. More than 909 landowners ended up with contracts, which represents 467,000 acres. Nationwide, 12.8 million acres were enrolled in CSP last fall.

Now, compare those numbers to CSP sign-ups from 2004 to 2008: during that period Minnesota had a total of just over 700 contracts covering some 208,000 acres. So in 2009 alone we almost doubled the amount of Minnesota land covered by CSP contracts in the previous five years combined.

Nearly $10 million will be paid out to Minnesota farmers through the five-year 2009 CSP contracts they signed. That averages out to $14,758 per contract, or $23.30 per acre, per year, for agricultural land.

That’s not exactly a windfall, but as southeast Minnesota dairy farmer Bill Gorman recently told me, “At least we got on the plus side of zero.” When it comes to farm programs, farmers like Gorman aren’t used to being on the “plus side of zero.” Gorman utilizes managed rotational grazing on his 160-acre certified organic dairy farm in Goodhue County. He also raises hay and cover crops such as oats.

His system is good for the soil and water, and provides excellent wildlife habitat. But the federal commodity program doesn’t see operations like his as benefits to society that should be supported. Before CSP came along, Gorman’s pasture and hay ground qualified for no commodity payments. He signed up for CSP in 2009 and received a contract, qualifying for approximately $3,100 to $3,200 a year in payments.

Okay, so far so good. The revamped version of CSP is off and running and stewardship farmers like Gorman are finally getting rewarded—albeit modestly—for doing the right thing. So what’s the problem?

The problem is we’re hearing widely varying accounts from farmers as to how CSP is being implemented. Farms that by any objective measure are considered highly stewardship-minded were inexplicably not offered contracts in 2009. I’m thinking specifically of a few Minnesota farms I’ve visited personally that have been lauded by soil scientists, wildlife biologists and other environmental experts for their conservation measures, and yet were skunked by CSP when they filled out an application.

These are farms that put in contour strips, utilize managed rotational grazing, established wildlife habitat, constructed ponds to control erosion and developed nutrient management plans, as well as implement diverse, resource-conserving crop rotations on an ongoing basis. In short, it would appear to be just the type of farms CSP was created for: ones that take extra efforts to implement practices which protect and improve the environment.

“We had been waiting for CSP for a number of years, thinking this program would be a good fit for us,” said one of those stewardship farmers recently. This particular farmer uses a seven-year crop rotation for most of the farm, which includes corn, soybeans, small grains and alfalfa. The farm also raises cattle on carefully managed pastures that used to be planted to corn on steep, highly-erosive ground. “We were pretty surprised to find out we were not being offered a contract because our score was too low. After all the conservation we’ve done on this farm, I’m pretty frustrated.”

What gives? Well, as this farmer alludes to, whether you are offered a CSP contract or not is based on a score. Fair enough. But the way that score is tabulated may be a problem. It’s calculated by points that are accrued by quantifying existing conservation measures on the farm, as well as new activities or “enhancements” to be implemented by a farmer throughout the life of a contract.

There are some concerns among sustainable agriculture groups that the scoring may be too heavily weighted towards enhancements farmers promise to make in the future, and that it doesn’t give stewardship farmers enough credit for the conservation they’ve already got in place.

Such a bias favors farmers who, for example,  have been raising corn-on-corn but who promise to add another crop to the rotation. This is a laudable enhancement, to be sure, but isn’t producing the immediate environmental benefits that many diverse stewardship farmers already can lay claim to. Discounting what farmers have maintained for years undermines the main goals of CSP and jeopardizes opportunities for securing ongoing conservation already in place. It’s not the best use of tax money.

LSP federal policy organizer Adam Warthesen is currently part of a multi-organizational effort to investigate how CSP is being implemented, and specifically how the scores are being calculated. Warthesen says that he and others who have talked to farmers who applied to the program—successfully and not so successfully—suspect there are possibly major discrepancies in how the scoring tool is being executed. Stay tuned…

Meanwhile, lawmakers and USDA officials need to see that there is a continuing high demand for such a program. That means farmers need to keep applying to it, despite the glitches and frustrations. It must be proven that CSP has a constituency that cares if it’s implemented at all, let alone how it’s implemented.

Tom Nuessmeier is one of those constituents. The diversified hog and crop farmer from Saint Peter applied for and received a CSP contract during the 2009 sign-up.

“Are there still some issues to be ironed out? Sure,” he said earlier this week. “But it’s real dollars for conservation and the direction farm policy needs to go.”

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