USDA has extended the sign-up period for the Conservation Stewardship Program to March 13, providing farmers two more weeks to complete enrollment.
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which publishes materials that help farmers make sense of the enrollment process, initial sign-up consists of filling out a two-page application.
In March or April, NSAC says, the producer will then work with local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service staff to determine the environmental benefits of their existing conservation commitments as well as proposed new conservation activities (enhancements and practices).
NSAC's Information Alert resource includes sign-up details and a complete listing of all of the 119 conservation enhancements and 35 conservation practices that new enrollees will have to choose from as they consider their USDA CSP options.
The Information Alert lists these conservation activities in order of their conservation and environmental point values. The higher the point value, the greater the expected environmental benefit and thus the greater weight they have in terms of both ranking the application among other CSP applications, and calculating the ultimate Conservation Stewardship Program financial assistance payment the producer will receive.
The top-ranking cropland enhancement – the soil health crop rotation - is brand new for this year, NSAC says. This enhancement requires a resource-conserving crop to be grown for at least two consecutive years and for annual crops to be preceded or followed by a cover crop.
The farmer then has a choice of two out of seven associated soil health practices to complement the resulting rotation. The soil health crop rotation scores two and a half times more than the next highest regular enhancement and more than seven times the average enhancement.
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Also high on the environmental benefits list, and related to soil health, are new or improved resource-conserving crop rotations, intensive rotational grazing, and a wide variety of different types of cover cropping.
The enhancement and practice list includes a variety of choices for each land use type (cropland, pasture, rangeland, and forest), multiple irrigation and water management choices, several options specifically for organic farmers or those transitioning to organic, and a long list of water quality and wildlife habitat improvement activities.
Four enhancements specifically address former Conservation Reserve Program land transitioning to CSP.
NSAC also offers a Farmers' Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program. The Farmers' Guide includes step-by-step enrollment guidance, key definitions, full explanations of the ranking and payment system, and helpful hints for accessing the program now that it has been revised by the 2014 Farm Bill.