As discussions on the next farm bill challenge us to think about how the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) can best assist farmers and landowners in reaching conservation goals, here on the Beginning Farmer Column, we’ve been focusing on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP can help beginning farmers achieve efficiencies in their business by providing technical assistance and incentive payments to establish installations or enhance practices that can reduce input costs or provide a marketing advantage.
Farmers interested in CSP can consider “bundles” of enhancement activities that complement each other to secure even greater efficiencies. Each bundle has a list of three or more mandatory practices, and many have another list from which a participant can choose additional practices, to earn the advantages of using a bundle. This allows farmers to adapt their participation in the program to their farm while also ensuring their efforts help achieve conservation goals.
There are currently two sets of CSP bundles that are expressly regional in focus: the Mississippi River Basin Initiative Bundles and the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative Bundles. In the Mississippi River Basin, farmers can improve water quality in their community while achieving co-benefits that can improve their bottom lines, such as margin improvements on cropland with better soil health, erosion mitigation, increased pollinators and other beneficial insects and wildlife, and establishment of valuable forage. Practices directed through the Ogallala bundles will achieve many of the same goals, in addition to increasing the efficiency of water used in irrigation and saving farmers money on energy spent using that water.
Utilizing bundles makes a CSP application more competitive, and a successful applicant using bundles will generally receive a higher payment than similar applications seeking payment for unbundled practices.
Remember, CSP was implemented by NRCS more recently than the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). It may be more difficult for some NRCS Service Centers to work with you on CSP than on other programs. In 2016, NRCS committed $93,175 to South Dakota through CSP, more than any other state. At 1,647,436 acres, South Dakota also had more land under active CSP contract than any other state. (Nebraska was second with 1,481,039 acres.) If you want to apply for CSP, ask your NRCS field staff about the program and learn as much as you can about it.