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Changes to Decade-Old Conservation Program Could Hurt Small Farmers

S Bence

The Conservation Stewardship Program has helped offset costs for farmers, who use conservation practices, since 2002. The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill brings change to the federal program.

Critics say the tweaks will spell bad news for generally small-scale farmers trying to do the right thing, environmentally. But the US Department of Agriculture believes the changes will largely be good for farmers and the land.

The public can comment on the USDA's implementation plan until 11:59 pm ET today, January 20, 2015.

If you peruse the agency's 2014 Farm Bill web page, the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, is described as helping “agricultural producers maintain and improve their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns. Participants earn CSP payments for conservation performance - the higher the performance, the higher the payment.”

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute’s policy director Margaret Krome says when the program started in 2002, its creation was good news for farmers and the land and water they steward. “They began to implement it during the Bush Administration and its originating philosophy remains very important; and that was to reward the best conservationists and motivate the rest,” Krome says.

During the most recent farm bill cycle, between 2009 and 2014, in Wisconsin alone CSP covered just under a million acres, stewarded by 2,700 farmers.

This could change with the latest Farm Bill. Krome points to a farmer in western Wisconsin as an example. She describes him as "a wonderful grazing farmer high on the ridges over near the Mississippi River."

"This farmer keeps grass on the ground covering the soil so it won’t erode. Yet the way the new program would score, he probably wouldn’t get funded," Krome says. “We want that kind of farmer to get funded."

Krome distills her concerns down to a couple of points. She believes CSP will deviate from its original intent. She says it is skewed towards large-scale farmers and those who are doing the worst with conservation today. She worries that people already farming sustainably won’t be funded and thus, won’t have the incentive to continue doing the right thing.

“Protecting the soil, maintaining clean water, helping to cultivate habitat for wildlife - we want to have our farmers protecting our water quality and we need to have soil for future generations," Krome says.

Her second concern? Krome says the rules would make it very easy for large farms to apply and receive most of the money. “So that individuals who are smaller farms would just have less money available for them to get funded,” she says.

Mark Rose with the USDA sees the future of the Conservation Stewardship Program much differently.

Although the Farm Bill gives the agency less money to work with, “the stewardship is based on acres, that’s how we’re apportioned dollars to implement the program," he says.

"So in the last Farm Bill ,we had I think 12.7 million acres was our cap. Now this new farm bill has capped it out at 10 million acres,” Rose says. “A small producer with a small amount of acreage has just as much opportunity to get into the program as a well as a producer who is farming 6,000 or 7,000 acres, or more. So we are conscious of that and want to encourage our small producers to be able to apply for the program."

He says the USDA is looking for ways to streamline and simplify the application process.

“One of the things is our conservation measurement tool , which is how we rank our applications. That was in the statutes, in the law, prior to this Farm Bill," Rose says. "In this Farm Bill, Congress removed it. It’s a very complex ranking tool. Now we’re still using it, because it’s all we have right now to be able to rank our applications. Congress has just said, you’re not required to use it in this Farm Bill. But we are looking for ways to make our ranking more simplified and easier for people to understand.”

At least until that streamline state is reached, Rose admits larger farms might have an advantage over small ones in winning a finite number of CSP dollars. “I think the larger operator that does have outside assistance that they’ve hired, maybe a technical service provider they have hired on their own, that knows a little more about our program may have that slight advantage. You know, anytime you hire a financial consultant, you are going to have the financial advantage in making sure your retirement nest egg is bigger than if you had done it on your own. So I think that would be a fair statement,” Rose says.

He says future streamlining will help all producers to understand the program.

In the meantime, he suggests small farmers seek out advise. “And I would hope there are free resources out there, through extension or even the local soil conservation office that’s available to the producers that would be available to take advantage of those and learn a little more about the program, to be able to know the questions to ask,” Rose says.

But Margaret Krome and other advocates for smaller-scale farmers say their concerns aren’t alleviated.

An alliance of grassroots organizations, The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, stated the proposed CSP modifications contain “loopholes and limitations that will make it harder for farmers to access the program.”

Credit Movement Six - "A Winter Farm" - Flickr Creative Commons

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.