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USDA Issues Final Rule for Conservation Stewardship Program

On October 8th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released the final rule for its Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The rule makes updates to the popular conservation program as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill and integrates feedback from agricultural producers and others.

The CSP program provides many benefits, including increased crop yields, decreased inputs, wildlife habitat improvements, and increased resilience to adverse weather. CSP is for working lands, including cropland, pastureland, rangeland, nonindustrial private forest land, and agricultural land under Indian tribe jurisdiction.

According to USDA, the final rule better aligns CSP with NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through common applications, contracting operations, conservation planning, conservation practices, and related administrative procedures. EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that helps promote agricultural production and environmental quality by providing producers financial and technical assistance to implement structural and management conservation practices on working agricultural lands.

The agency made the following changes in the final rule:

  • Added emphasis to enhancing soil health as a way that program participants can achieve program goals.
  • Modified language pertaining to locally led conservation by specifying that NRCS will solicit input from the State Technical Committees and by adding new Tribal Conservation Advisory Councils.
  • Specified that, with local working groups, these entities will “develop state-level technical, outreach and program materials.”
  • Made minor edits to and amended definitions for “enhancement,” “management-intensive rotational grazing,” and “resource-conserving crop.”
  • Provided clarity to producers by adjusting language related to the set-aside for historically underserved producers.
  • Adjusted the language for early start waivers to align with EQIP and reflect that the provision applies only to new conservation activities.
  • Allowed for more than one contract renewal but extend the two-year program ineligibility period to include those who apply for renewal and are not selected.

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