Farm group claims flaws unaddressed in Conservation Stewardship Program changes
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Oct. 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a final rule detailing updates to its Conservation Stewardship Program as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill.
In comparison to the interim rule, the final version places a greater emphasis on soil health — an issue that National Farmers Union had encouraged the agency to give more consideration in comments submitted earlier this year. However, the organization was disappointed that USDA did not incorporate many of its other requests, including support for long-term stewardship and lower payment limits for participants. NFU President Rob Larew highlighted those concerns in a news release statement:
“As farmers cope with increasingly severe environmental challenges, they are investing more time, money, and expertise in conserving natural resources, mitigating climate change, and adapting to greater weather extremes. While the Conservation Stewardship Program is providing essential support for those efforts, some modest changes would help maximize the environmental impact of every dollar spent.
“We are pleased that USDA incorporated some improvements in its final rule, most notably its inclusion of soil health as a priority. However, the rule does not elaborate on how this goal will be achieved. Moving forward, we encourage the agency to provide more specifics about the ways in which the program will help farmers build soil health in order to sequester atmospheric carbon, increase yields, and prevent erosion.
“There are several other measures that would enhance CSP’s efficacy, as we enumerated in our earlier comments. Currently, the contract evaluation process gives preference to first-time applicants over previous recipients, essentially penalizing those engaged in long-term stewardship. To encourage an ongoing commitment to conservation, USDA should instead judge applications on their overall environmental benefits. Furthermore, the program disproportionately helps the largest farms by allowing payments up to $400,000 for joint operations. CSP statute clearly limits payments to $200,000 for any operation, and USDA should enforce that for all farming operations, regardless of size.
“To our disappointment, USDA failed to include either of these recommendations in its final rule. As a result, many of CSP’s structural flaws will go unaddressed, and the program will continue to fall short of its potential.”