Last Updated January 26, 2010
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
Helping and rewarding farmers and ranchers who maintain and continue conservation practices
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a comprehensive working lands conservation program designed to protect and improve natural resources and the environment. CSP provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to actively manage and maintain existing conservation systems and to implement additional conservation activities on land in agricultural production. CSP targets funding to:
- Address particular resources of concern in a given watershed or region
- Assist farmers and ranchers to improve soil, water, and air quality
- Provide increased biodiversity and wildlife and pollinator habitat
- Sequester carbon to mitigate climate change
- Conserve water and energy.
Unlike its predecessor program, the Conservation Security Program, the CSP authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill has a new nationwide, continuous sign-up so farmers and ranchers anywhere in the country can apply any year and at any time of the year. Periodically during the year, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – which administers CSP –ranks applications and develops contracts with those farmers and ranchers with the highest rankings until funding for that ranking period is exhausted. The Farm Bill provides sufficient funding to enroll nearly 13 million acres in CSP each year.
Eligibility, Uses and Restrictions
Eligible Land - Private agricultural land, including cropland, pasture, and rangeland, is eligible to be enrolled in CSP with the exception of land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve, Wetland Reserve, or Grassland Reserve Programs (CRP, WRP, and GRP). In addition, land that has not been cropped for four of the six years prior to 2008 but is then put under crop cultivation is ineligible unless: 1) it was previously enrolled in the CRP; 2) the land was managed under a long-term crop rotation; or 3) is an incidental portion of the land.
Eligible land includes all the acres of an agricultural operation under the effective control of a producer, regardless of whether or not it is contiguous, and regardless of whether it is owned or rented. Farmers and ranchers must enroll all of the acres that they operate.
NRCS has established up to 5 priority resources of concern for each watershed or region in the country. To qualify for CSP, farmers and ranchers must:
- meet the “stewardship threshold” (a standard that NRCS will set for improving the long-term sustainability of a natural resource) for one priority resource concern at the time of the contract offer; and
- meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for at least one additional priority resource concern by the end of the 5-year contract.
Applicants must certify in writing the accuracy of their conservation benchmark inventory and that two years of written records or documentation are available and being used to manage their conservation system.
The CSP Applicant and Land Eligibility Self-Assessment form, as well as resource-specific indices such as the Soil and Water Quality Assessment Tool or the Rangeland Health Assessment Tool, are used to help rank proposals and determine payment rates. Both are available electronically from the national and state NRCS websites and local NRCS offices.
Ranking Criteria - NRCS periodically ranks all proposals it receives and funds proposals by ranking, until all funding is allocated. The ranking system is essentially based on how much farmers and ranchers have already done, and how much more they are willing to do, to address natural resource concerns. Primary ranking factors are:
- The extent of the baseline level of conservation on the ground at the time of enrollment.
- The degree to which the proposed new conservation activities address the priority resources and improve conservation outcomes over baseline levels;
- The total number of priority resource concerns that are addressed to meet or exceed the stewardship threshold level;
- The extent to which other natural resource concerns, in addition to those identified as priority resource concerns, are addressed to a level that will improve and conserve them by the end of the contract period; and
- The extent to which the environmental benefits from the contract are provided at the least cost relative to other similarly beneficial contracts.
Farmers who do not rank highly enough to get into CSP the first time they submit an application can resubmit for the very next ranking date.
Application and Financial Information
Payments - CSP pays producers to improve, maintain and actively manage conservation activities in place at the time of application and to adopt new conservation activities during the contract term. Payment amounts are determined by these factors:
- Costs incurred by the farmer or rancher for the planning, design, materials, installation, labor, management, maintenance or training;
- Income forgone by the farmer or rancher;
- Expected environmental benefits the conservation activities will provide (as determined by conservation measurement tools).
Farmers who are willing to adopt resource-conserving crop rotations that include cover crops, forages, green manures, catch crops, and the like will be eligible to receive additional supplemental payments. Optional payments are also available for the cost of participation in special CSP on-farm research, demonstration, and pilot testing of alternative conservation activities.
Payments are capped at $40,000 per year. All payments will be attributed to the real persons who are the ultimate beneficiaries, even if payments are made to legal business entities such as partnerships, subchapter C corporations, LLCs, etc.
Nationwide, payments (including the costs of technical assistance) average $18 an acre. However, payment amounts vary greatly, from lower cost rangeland improvement contracts to mid-range pasture contracts to higher range cropland contracts.
Annual payments are made after October 1 every year. Payments to maintain and actively manage existing conservation activities begin in the fiscal year following enrollment. Payments and payment adjustments for newly implemented activities can begin once implementation of those activities occurs.
Contracts - Applicants accepted through the ranking process immediately become eligible for technical assistance to finalize CSP conservation plans and help implement new conservation activities. All CSP contracts are 5 years, with an option to renew for another 5 years if a farmer or rancher has met the terms of the preceding contract and is willing to adopt additional conservation activities or solve additional resource concerns. Farmers or ranchers should work with their NRCS office to outline their existing conservation activities and new proposed new activities.
Organic Farming - Farmers and ranchers have the option of receiving technical and financial assistance for the development of a comprehensive conservation plan. Also, as noted above, comprehensive conservation planning should now also be available for payment under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, meaning that farmers could develop the plan with EQIP assistance and then the following year use the plan as part of the application for CSP.
Organic Farming - Organic farmers can benefit enormously from the CSP's supplemental payment provision for resource-conserving crop rotations as well as from the emphasis in the ranking criteria on comprehensive resource and environmental farming systems. USDA is also required to ensure that CSP will benefit organic farming and ranching systems, including providing outreach and technical assistance to organic farmers and ranchers. USDA also must create a transparent process that allows such producers to coordinate their organic certification process with participation in CSP, including coordination of organic plans and CSP conservation plans.
The USDA website for the Conservation Security Program: www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/.
CSP National Program Manager