Has CSP’s Moment Arrived?

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The revamped Conservation Stewardship Program is officially off to the races. The USDA announced yesterday that it will now accept applications from farmers between Aug. 10 and Sept. 30 for the program’s first sign-up since it was resuscitated by the 2008 Farm Bill. This is exciting—there are indications that the seven-year-old program finally has the resources it requires to realize its full agroecological potential.

Originally called the Conservation Security Program when it was created in 2002, so far CSP has been more potential than anything, mostly because of a pitiful low amount of funding, and an infrastructure that made it available in only a few select watersheds.

But oh, what potential: CSP truly represents a revolutionary approach to federal farm policy. Instead of focusing exclusively on rewarding farmers for growing row crops like corn and soybeans, and, on the flip side, punishing those who try to add a little biodiversity to their operations, CSP supports conservation outcomes produced by both new and existing stewardship practices that farmers use.

Rotational grazing and resource-conserving crop rotations that utilize soil-building plants like small grains and forages are just a few of the stewardship practices CSP is supposed to recognize as worthy of reward.

As LSP outlined in a 2005 Land Stewardship Letter article, CSP represents a critical shift because it could encourage farmers to maintain, and adopt, systems that rely on (or at least tolerate) more grass, diverse rotations and even “wild areas” like wetlands. But CSP also has the potential to provide another important benefit in farm country: a morale boost for producers who are trying to be good stewards.

For too long, farmers who try to diversify have been sent the message by the federal commodity program that unless you raise row crops like corn and soybeans to the exclusion of all else, you are a bad farmer. Farmers are independent sorts, but like all of us, are vulnerable to peer pressure. Giving a pat on the back to farmers who are utilizing innovative—sometimes untested—methods to farm in an environmentally sound manner is no small matter.

The late Dave Serfling was a southeast Minnesota crop and livestock farmer and a member of LSP’s Federal Farm Policy Committee before he was killed in an auto accident in 2006. He helped develop the initial ideas that eventually led to CSP (it was called the Conservation Security Act back in those days). He often argued that  the most effective programs are the ones that give farmers a conservation goal, and then allow them the freedom to achieve that level of stewardship through their own creative means. This is in contrast to some conservation programs that have prescribed a set of cookie-cutter practices which look good on paper, but don’t work for every farm—and don’t produce real environmental results.

As Serfling told a U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in 2001:

You have over one million creative farmer minds out there in the country. If you tell them the environmental results that you want and give them financial incentive to achieve them, they will find a way to deliver.

That was the idea behind CSP when it was created by the 2002 Farm Bill a year later. In some ways, it has been the little program that could. Despite the anemic funding and less-than-strident implementation, the 2002 version of CSP produced a surprising amount of positive environmental benefits in a handful of watersheds, including some here in Minnesota.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see CSP version 1.2  hitting the ground running. Consider this: since 2004 CSP has enrolled only 20 million acres in total. In contrast, the new CSP has an  enrollment goal of  nearly 13 million acres per year, and since it’s receiving $12 billion in funding over the next 10 years, that goal is quite attainable.

Nothing is perfect, and the new CSP is no exception. Its ultimate success depends on how it’s implemented by NRCS officials on the local level. We should also keep in mind that the overwhelming amount of federal farm dollars still go toward encouraging monocultures of row crops.

But it’s hard to not get excited over the fact that CSP 2008 is available to all agricultural producers, regardless of where they live or what they are producing. As Dave Serfling would say, that’s a whole lot of creative farmer minds to tap into.

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