2018 Farm Bill Breakdown: Conservation Stewardship Program

Now that President Donald Trump has signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, NACD’s Government Affairs Team will be releasing a series of blog posts to break down the bill in more detail with the expected changes folks can expect on the ground as USDA works to implement the new law. 

Changes Coming to CSP in New Farm Bill

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides financial assistance to producers who have already begun to implement conservation on their land and commit to doing more. Producers must enroll their entire operation in the program, already have addressed two priority resource concerns, and commit to addressing another priority resource concern over the life of their five-year contract. CSP is a competitive program, and only producers that commit to achieving the highest level of conservation are awarded contracts. With more than 70 million acres enrolled, it is the largest conservation program in the United States.

The House of Representatives proposed merging CSP into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NACD supported keeping the programs functionally separate, and we are grateful to see CSP continue as a standalone program. However, the 2018 Farm Bill still made changes to CSP, including moving from an acreage-based program to a monetary one, cutting the program’s 10-year baseline, and eliminating the $18 per acre payment requirement.

Funding Changes

The 2018 Farm Bill changes CSP’s underlying funding structure. In the past, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was authorized to enroll a set number of acres in CSP. USDA was given wide latitude to determine the payment rate for each acre enrolled, as long as the national average was $18 per acre. Moving forward, USDA is authorized to spend $700 million in 2019, rising to $1 billion in 2023 on CSP, regardless of the number of acres enrolled. CSP is now funded on a dollar basis, like EQIP, rather than an acreage basis, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Additionally, the $18 per acre average payment requirement was eliminated. While the change should not have a big impact for program participants, it is a significant change in the structure of the program and will hopefully result in easier administration of the program by USDA.

The 2018 Farm Bill also cut funding for CSP compared to previous years. While the switch from an acreage to a dollar basis makes the funding cut a little more difficult to track, CSP’s cut in funding was used to bolster other conservation programs. In the 2018 Farm Bill, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) received significant funding increases. The Watershed Programs (PL-566) received baseline funding for the first time, and a Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot was created and funded. In addition, EQIP received over a billion dollar increase. Since Congress did not provide any additional funding for conservation in the 2018 Farm Bill, these funding increases had to be paid for by cuts elsewhere in the Conservation Title.

Changes to the Program Administration

There will be several changes to the operation and administration of CSP with the new farm bill. First, participants are no longer guaranteed the option to renew their contract once it expires. Moving forward, anyone that wants to renew their contract will have to apply and have their application ranked, like new program enrollees. This will focus contract renewals on those that implement new and improved conservation activities and demonstrate continued improvement. In addition, the 2018 Farm Bill changes the application ranking process to focus more on the outcomes of practices for all applicants.

The 2018 Farm Bill also creates several special “enhancements” that now receive a special payment rate to incentivize their adoption. Cover crop activities will receive at least 125 percent of the payment that the producer would otherwise receive. Resource-conserving crop rotations and advanced grazing management will receive at least 150 percent of the payment the producers would otherwise receive. Producers are also now eligible to receive a one-time payment to develop and implement a comprehensive conservation plan. In addition, while it was not awarded a higher payment rate, the farm bill did direct USDA to focus CSP more on enhancing soil health.

While the farm bill refrained from eliminating CSP or merging the program into EQIP, it does call for greater coordination and streamlining between CSP and EQIP in hopes of moving producers from single practice contracts in EQIP to the more comprehensive aspects of CSP. NACD will watch carefully to see how USDA proposes to implement this provision.

New Grasslands Conservation Initiative

To save money in the Commodity Title of the bill, Congress suspended commodity program payments on base acres that have been in grass (and not planted to a commodity crop) for the past 10 years. Producers with these base acres are not losing them, but payments will be suspended for the five-year life of the 2018 Farm Bill. Producers with these acres now will have the opportunity to enroll in a new grasslands conservation initiative as a part of CSP for an $18 per acre payment each year.

This new initiative will have different rules than the rest of CSP and will be administered separately. Eligible producers will have a single opportunity to enroll in a five-year contract. All eligible producers will be accepted into the initiative and their applications will not need to be ranked. By signing the contract, producers agree to meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for one priority resource concern by the end of the five-year contract. This is significantly different than the rest of CSP, where a producer must meet or exceed two priority resource concerns before they can apply.

Stay tuned to NACD’s eResource for future 2018 Farm Bill break-downs by the government affairs team and reach out to Director of Government Affairs Coleman Garrison with questions or comments.

Tags: 2018 Farm Bill

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