Important Conservation Deadline for Beginning Farmers Approaches

Alyssa Charney
Tufts University

Beginning farmers who support natural resources on their working lands have an important opportunity to be rewarded for their conservation efforts.  The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides technical and financial assistance to reward the way they maintain and improve critical environmental services.  Interested beginning farmers have until March 13th to apply for the next signup period.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) recently released an updated Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is a free, online resource that provides background and data on the program, detailed steps to apply, and profiles of farmers who have already benefited from CSP.  The guide is available for download here.


                                                                   Cover of the newly released guide

What is CSP?

CSP is a federal conservation program for working lands, built on the belief that agricultural land can be productive and profitable, while simultaneously achieving critical environmental goals.  Administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), CSP provides comprehensive conservation assistance through annual payments to farmers, which are set by the environmental benefits produced by on-farm practices.  Farmers select specific conservation practices, enhancements, and groups of enhancements to address a range of resource concerns that address everything from water quality to soil erosion to energy conservation.   

Who is Eligible?

All sizes and types of operations are eligible to apply for a CSP contract.  Contracts last for five years and producers then have the option to renew for another five years.  Applicants can be an owner-operator, a renter with permission from the landowner to enroll, or an owner who crop shares with another farmer.  Anyone who controls the land and therefore takes on the risk of its production is eligible for CSP.  One component of the CSP application that can be time-consuming is applying for a DUNS number and SAM registration, if the applicant is not applying as an individual.  This process and more is outlined in the NSAC guide.

CSP Contracts Support Beginning Farmers

Under the 2008 Farm Bill, which covered five enrollment periods between 2009 and 2013, more than 4,000 farmers enrolled in CSP, accounting for 9 percent of all CSP contracts throughout the country.  The amount of total funding obligated to beginning farmers, as well as the total acreage of their contracts were both more 5 percent under the 2008 Farm Bill.

Beginning farmers who apply to CSP compete in a separate ranking pool, with 5 percent of all acres being set aside for them.  This bodes well for beginning farmers, as 69 percent of all applicants were accepted between 2009 and 2013, which is significantly higher than the overall acceptance rate of 53 percent. 

However, there is still much room to expand beginning farmer participation in CSP.  The 9 percent of contracts awarded is considerably less than the 25 percent of American farmers who are beginning farmers and the 17 percent of American farms that are operated by beginning farmers.  These data suggest that there is still a long way to go level the playing field and reward beginning farmers for their stewardship.  Further, in Massachusetts, only 3 (of 16 total) CSP contracts were awarded to beginning farmers, so there is still significant room for increased enrollment within the state.

Other Federal Conservation Opportunities for Beginning Farmers

Just as with CSP, beginning farmers applying to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), also compete in a separate pool with a set aside of five percent of program funds.  EQIP is also administered by NRCS and provides cost share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices on working lands.  Beginning farmers are also eligible for higher cost-share rates, covering up to 90 percent of project costs.  EQIP includes the seasonal high tunnel initiative, and beginning farmers have shown particularly high rates of participation in this program.

An additional conservation opportunity to support beginning farmers is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Transitions Incentives Program (CRP-TIP).  CRP-TIP is administered through USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA), and it allows farmers with land expiring from CRP, a land retirement program, to receive two additional years of rental payments if they rent or sell that land to beginning, socially disadvantaged, or veteran farmers or ranchers. The participating farmer must then implement a conservation plan on that land returning to production, and they have the opportunity to enroll in CSP, EQIP and can re-enroll portions of the land in CRP.

There are clearly a number of federal conservation programs available for beginning farmers, and as the March 13th CSP deadline approaches, beginning farmers have a unique opportunity to be rewarded for their commitment to protecting and improving critical environmental resources.  Download the Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program here.

Note: The term “beginning farmers” here includes beginning farmers, ranchers, and foresters, as program data from NRCS covers all CSP contract holders who care for and harvest plants and animals from the land.

Alyssa Charney is a second year graduate student in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.