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The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill has come and gone, but important details about program rules and how they’re implemented are still being hammered out. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the largest working lands conservation program in the United States, supporting thousands of farmers to implement conservation practices on millions of acres. Despite CSP’s critical importance in supporting sustainable agriculture, the 2018 Farm Bill ordered some changes to CSP that undermine its purpose and create significant barriers to participation. These rules are subject to a public comment period, and IATP submitted comments to encourage Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to change these rules for the better.

CSP has existed since the 2002 Farm Bill, and over 70 million acres of crop, forest, pasture and rangeland are currently enrolled in the program. The program pays participating farmers to implement whole-farm conservation systems. CSP has greatly improved soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat on enrolled acres. From a climate perspective, CSP encourages the exact practices needed to sequester carbon and make farms more resilient to climate impacts.

CSP encourages producers to actively manage ongoing conservation activities as well as add new conservation practices. However, the new rules overemphasize adding new initiatives while failing to reward ongoing activities. This effectively keeps farmers out of the program who have been dedicated to conservation over the long term. IATP’s comments emphasize that NRCS should give equal weight to the management of new and ongoing conservation on a farm when determining who gets into the program. Farmers should be eligible for support based on the environmental benefits they’re achieving regardless of when they initially adopted the practice.

Implementing conservation practices on a farm can be risky; it requires a change in management practices, and farmers often have to pay for new or additional equipment or inputs. Asking farmers to take a risk is especially challenging today, as farmers are facing the worst economic crisis since the 1980s. According to the Census of Agriculture, only 43.6% of farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017. It’s critical that farmers receive the support they need to take the risks that come along with changing farm management practices. As such, IATP’s comments encourage NRCS to ensure that CSP payments reflect costs, forgone income, and conservation and environmental benefits.

Finally, the 2018 Farm Bill says that a farm can renew its CSP contract “one time only.” This language should be removed, and NRCS should fund all eligible renewal applications that continue to provide substantial environmental benefits. The option for farmers to renew their CSP contract is especially important because many conservation practices that build soil health and sequester carbon take years to fully achieve results. Increased soil health has multiple benefits, including improved water-holding capacity in the soil, natural nutrient cycling, and reduced weeds and pests. These benefits are not only environmental, but they also help boost a farm’s profitability and ability to withstand extreme weather in the face of climate change. IATP’s comments emphasize that CSP renewals should be based on total environmental benefits in order to reward the best stewards of the land.

Programs like CSP are not only beneficial for farmers – they also provide multiple benefits to society through cleaner air, water and climate mitigation. As such, CSP should be well-funded and should reward farmers for their stewardship efforts, both new and ongoing.

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