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  • December 2015

    Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) Review Report

    By Rex Dufour, Western Regional Office Director, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT); and Eric Cissna, Kelly Damewood, and Jane Sooby, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)

  • Page 2 Conservation Stewardship Program Review Report

    I. IntroductionCalifornia leads the country in agricultural production, particularly specialty crops and certified organic acres, but ranks far behind many other states in number of acres enrolled in the Natural Resources Conservation Services Conservation Steward-ship Program (CSP). From 2009-2014, California enrolled 972,000 acres, ranking 22nd in the country, while the top-ranking states enrolled upwards of 3.5 to 5.5 million acres. Historically, organic grower enrollment has been very low throughout the state; however in 2015, CSP organic acreage in California jumped considerably, from 4,969 to 32,643 acres.

    Fiscal Year Type of Contract

    Number of Contracts

    $ amount of Contracts

    Acres under Contract

    Counties

    2014 New 23 $673,870 57,533 Colusa, Glenn, Marin, Modoc, Mon-terey, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Siskiyou, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama and Tulare

    2015 Renewal* 110 $2,023,940 277,444

    2015 (projected)

    New 34 $631,864 124,000 Alameda, Amador, Butte, Glen, Hum-boldt, Imperial, Lassen, Monterey, Placer, Plumas, Riverside, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Shasta, Siski-you and Tehama

    * initial contracts obligated in 2010. CSP contracts run for five years.

    The NRCS intends a major revamp of CSP for the 2017 sign-up period, which provides an important opportunity for vital feed-back. NRCS hopes to increase accessibility and make the program more farmer-friendly.

    To leverage this opportunity, CCOF partnered with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) to identify bar-riers farmers face throughout the CSP enrollment process and the lifetime of the CSP contract with the ultimate goal of recom-mending improvements in CSP to NRCS. CCOF developed information from the farmer point of view and NCAT developed information from the NRCS field staff point of view.

    ContentsI. Introduction ................................................................................................................2

    II. Common themes ......................................................................................................3

    III. NRCS Field Staff Perspectives ..............................................................................3

    IV. Organic Farmer Perspectives .............................................................................5

    Appendix 1. NRCS Staff Survey Questions ............................................................8

    Appendix 2. Summary of Responses to Questions ............................................8

    NCAT would like to thank all the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employees who helped with providing content for this report, particularly Alan Forkey and the field staff who took time out of their very busy schedules to respond to these questions.

    NCAT and CCOF would like to thank the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which provided funding to make this report possible.

  • Page 3National Center for Appropriate Technology California Certified Organic Farmers

    II. Common themesBoth NRCS field staff and organic farmers that CCOF surveyed agreed on four general themes.

    1. The complex application procedure is a disincentive for both farmers and for field staff.

    2. The program is inflexible. It is difficult to amend contracts, contract length is too long for some producers, and the require-ment that all of a farms acreage be enrolled in CSP causes logistical problems for farmers who lease farmland.

    3. Small farms are unlikely to apply for CSP because allocating funds on a per acre basis provides little incentive for them to participate.

    4. Highly diversified and organic farms experience a number of disincentives to signing up.

    Please note that suggested improvements to address issues raised by these 4 themes are noted in Sections III and IV.

    III. NRCS Field Staff Perspectives

    ApproachNCAT staff developed six questions relating to CSP use and implementation that were sent to 16 NRCS field staff, most of whom work as District Conservationists (DCs) and a few of whom work as Soil Conservationists or Engineers for NRCS. See Appendix 1 for the list of questions.

    In three instances, extended phone conversations were held with NRCS field staff to drill down into details of implementation, obstacles, and possible improvements. For 10 of the responses, NCAT staffer Rex Dufour sent out questions to NRCS staff. Alan Forkey (NRCS/CA Assistant State Conservationist for Programs) emailed the questionnaire on behalf of Rex Dufour, resulting in six additional responses.

    Summary of FeedbackSee Appendix 2, Summary of Responses to Questions, for a verbatim summary of field staff answers to these questions.

    From the responses received, CSP is not a popular program with nearly all the field staff surveyed, and is also not a popular program in their respective counties among farmers. Only four staff in four locations out of the 16 surveyed had any positive comments about this program.

    There were many different reasons provided as to why CSP is not popular with field staff and they can be distilled down into the following themes, some of which overlap. Under each theme is a suggested improvement. These improvements are not termed solutions because they likely wont cure or solve the problem but these suggestions provide some ideas and directions to improve the program. These ideas were suggested by NRCS staff or they were implied by NRCS staff responses.

    1. Complexity of the Program. Its too complicated for the farmers, and its too complicated for field staff. A couple staff noted that there was little mandatory training provided by NRCS about CSP. The CMT (Conservation Management Tool, which is used to rank applications) for cropland consists of 12 pages of detailed questions requiring a fair amount of documentation on the farmers part as well as significant time on the part of field staff to inspect the farm on the front end and review documentsall for a relatively low payment. The CMT for rangeland is shorter (only six pages of questions).

    The application requires a lot of preliminary paperwork/field work for relatively low return to farmer (and, several staffers noted, a low conservation bang for the buck). This is a burden on both farmers and field staff.

    Suggested Improvements

    a. Simplify the CSP application and review process, especially for cropland.

    b. Provide additional staff to work on CSP and staff training about how to efficiently use the CMT and how enhancements an bundles can be used to support good conservation. Field staff need to be better incentivized to promote and use the program. Develop a simpler application process which supports conservation bang for the buck by better prioritizing practices which increase soil health and function, water use efficiency, and support biodiversity.

    c. Another option would be to do away with CSP and target the funds to EQIP conservation programs.

  • Page 4 Conservation Stewardship Program Review Report

    2. Inflexibility of the Program. Several NRCS staff noted that making changes or amendments to contracts is difficult, and the contracts are generally too long. Most landowners would prefer bite-sized contracts of two to three years (CSP contracts run five years). Also, several staff noted that all of a landowners land must be enrolled into the program, and its difficult to accurately quantify and characterize (and therefore qualify) a large farms acreage.

    Another staffer commented that one farm cannot have both CSP acreage and EQIP acreage, which reduces the options of apply-ing both programs.

    Another staffer had questions concerning one farmer leasing multiple parcels from different landlords, saying Another reason its not so popular in rangeland is you have to include all the land you control in the application. When you have lots of leases and different landowners, its tricky. Also one property might not qualify and puts you out of the program.

    Suggested Improvements

    a. Provide an option for two to five year contracts.

    b. Provide for the option of enrolling a given farms acreage into more than one program. Especially with larger acreages, there are often some parts of the land with resource concerns that could better be addressed through EQIP rather than through CSP. Consider allowing both programs on a particular acreage.

    3. Challenges for smaller acreage farms. Since nearly all enhancements are acreage-based, there is not much to offer smaller landholders. This is a systemic problem, particularly when combined with the low payment rates and time requirements for both NRCS staff and farmers to complete an application. Though perhaps suitable for larger acreages, some questions on the CMT are very difficult to answer for the extremely diversified rotations used by many smaller organic farmers, with dozens of crops planted in one year.

    Several staff noted that the relatively low payment rates for enhancements are unattractive to farmers, particularly for smaller-acreage farmers. Combined with the up-front investment of time required by busy NRCS staff (not to mention the farmers time) to enroll farmers in the program, the program doesnt receive enthusiastic support among most NRCS staff.

    Suggested Improvements

    a. Increase payment rates for enhancements, or provide increased payment rates for a