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US Conservation Stewardship Programme may miss the mark

The USDA recently issued a final updates to the Conservation Stewardship Programme, but the NFU fears that the rules leave structural flaws unaddressed.

12 October 2020, at 7:00am

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a final rule detailing updates to its Conservation Stewardship Programme (CSP) 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 (NFU) had encouraged the agency to give more consideration in comments submitted earlier this year.

However, the organisation 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 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 Programme is providing essential support for those efforts, some modest changes would help maximise 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 programme 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 penalising 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 programme 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 programme will continue to fall short of its potential.”