Farmers caring for their land received a mixed bag when USDA finalized rules for the Conservation Stewardship, according to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

First of all, the June 3 announcement extended the deadline for filing CSP applications from June 11 to June 25.

"With just weeks to spare before the application deadline, farmers and ranchers have now been afforded the opportunity to know what the final rules of the program are before making the decision whether to apply or not,” says Ferd Hoefner, NSAC policy director.

 “The bottom line is this is a strong program that producers engaged in advanced land stewardship should seriously consider,” Hoefner says.

However, the coalition strongly disagrees with USDA changes that will give more money to producers who adopt new conservation practices and less to practices that are in place.

This change contradicts the Farm Bill's directive for equal treatment for managing, improving and adopting conservation activities, Hoefner says.

By adopting new practices, farmers and ranchers will receive a higher payment rate, which Hoefner says is beyond the amount justified by environmental outcomes. On the other hand, ongoing conservation activities will receive a lower payment rate that is below the environmental outcome level.

“It is unfortunate that the USDA has taken it upon itself to rewrite the Farm Bill and to move away from payments based on natural resource and environmental outcomes,” said Hoefner.  “This is a mistake, but one that can be minimized in actual program delivery by limiting the aberrations in the payment formula. We intend to press for keeping the focus on outcomes to the maximum extent possible.”

While final data on the 2009 CSP sign-up is not yet available from USDA, farmer payments under CSP contracts signed so far are running about 63% for actively managing and maintaining existing conservation activities and 37% for encouraging additional conservation practices, Hoefner says.

“More than 80% of the eligible applicants across all land uses were already meeting and frequently exceeding minimum stewardship levels on five of the eight resource concerns,” according to the NRCS. “Applicants in the initial CSP ranking period appear to be practicing stewardship at a fairly high level. As a result, one would expect to see conservation performance points earned for existing activities to be higher than performance points earned for additional activities.”

This makes sense to the sustainable ag coalition, Hoefner.

“The emerging information on CSP payments conforms exactly to the Farm Bill's vision for the program and to common sense,” he says.  “There have been years of pentup demand for this program since it first became law in 2002.

“Now, eight years later, it has had its first full-scale, nationwide sign-up and many of the best stewards have responded and been accepted into the program," Hoefner says.  "As the program expands and a wider range of farms become competitive, the ratio will naturally move toward balance.”