You could get paid for conservation practices you already have in place. Sound too good to be true? Maybe not.

As part of the new Farm Bill, you'll soon have the opportunity to participate in a program that rewards you for new and existing conservation practices implemented on working farmland. However, you may need to be patient while waiting for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to put the finishing touches on the program.

“The Conservation Security Program (CSP) will help owners and operators of agricultural lands maintain conservation stewardship and implement and maintain additional needed conservation practices,” says Carole Jett of NRCS, Washington, D.C. “The conservation benefits gained will keep farms and ranches more sustainable and profitable.”

Jett says CSP is available to ag producers regardless of size, type of operation or prior use of farm or conservation programs. The program will be available in fiscal year 2003.

“I'm getting less optimistic that the program will be ready this spring,” says Daryn McBeth. McBeth's consulting firm, McBeth & Associates, represents The Minnesota Project, which has taken an active role in promoting CSP.

“On top of the rule-writing administrative process, there's high-level decision making on the funding that's needed to go forward with this new program in a different budget environment,” McBeth says. “There's also a lot of work to be done at the state and local levels on a parallel track with the rule-making process. But this is how we want it. We don't want a national rule from the folks in Washington telling us how to best enhance conservation in the middle of Minnesota.”

Once the program is in place, you'll work with NRCS staff to identify resource concerns and determine the extent of conservation treatment that's being applied and maintained on your land. Levels of participation are divided into three tiers (see story at right).

Payments will include a base payment determined by the treatment level, up to 75% cost-share and maintenance payments of currently applied conservation practices, and enhanced payments for exceptional conservation efforts, according to NRCS.

“Part of the intent of this program is to reward folks for things they're already doing,” says McBeth. “Anyone who's aware of this program should be interested.”

McBeth emphasizes that much of the income potential from the program comes from bonus or enhanced payments. “Each tier has a base-payment limitation, but the payment for the overall tier level participation is a bit higher,” he says. “Grower groups and other advocates will need to come up with innovative ideas for bonus payments and work with NRCS to implement them into the program.”

From Corwin Fee's perspective, it's about time farmers who have practiced conservation for years begin to reap some rewards. Fee, of Knoxville, IA, grows corn and soybeans and has a cow-calf herd among the rolling hills of southern Iowa.

“I'm not just an environmentalist, I'm a steward of the land, and I think the land needs to be productive,” says Fee. “There's so much hunger and so many things we can do, we need to keep the land productive. My father-in-law, Lowell Johnson, was a conservationist and environmentalist before me, so I've kept up that tradition.”

Fee says 100% of his farmland is under some type of conservation practice. He has implemented terraces, contour farming, and strip-crop farming, as well as an intensive grazing system. In addition, 100% of his corn and soybean acres are no-till.

“Those who have been using conservation practices shouldn't be penalized. We've been penalized by the past several farm bills,” Fee says. “The farm programs reward the person who stresses production over the environment and I think this program looks like a chance to change that focus and at least put an equal focus on environmental and production techniques.”

He's developed a thick skin over the years, from 30 years ago when he and his father-in-law implemented no-till and were called “trash farmers” by neighbors, to more recent reductions in conservation programs. He's hoping CSP is a step in the right direction.

“I feel no guilt whatsoever having our urban neighbors and friends help pay us for what we're doing because they (benefit from) it. We have cleaner water, we keep our land where it's supposed to be — not going down into the Gulf of Mexico — and we're still producing a very cheap, safe food product.”

There is some concern about the viability of the program. Authorized for the next seven years, it isn't subject to appropriations from Congress each year. However, McBeth says, the administration can delay its implementation or Congress can scale back implementation with rider language.

“In a time when federal government surpluses are pretty much gone for the next budget period, the budget hawks are looking to pinch pennies wherever they can,” he says. “Some folks could determine conservation programs are one area where they could spend less. There's some concern, but there's a lot of support for the program, too.”

Three Tiers For Base Payments

Here's a look at the three-tiered approach that will be used when offering base payments.

  • Tier I addresses at least one natural resource concern to a non-degradation level on part of the ag operation. Base payment is 5% of either the average national rental rate for the 2001 crop year for the specific land use or another appropriate rate that ensures regional equity up to $5,000. Tier I contracts are limited to five years and $20,000 annually.

  • Tier II goes a step further; it must treat one natural resource concern to a non-degradation level and involve the entire ag operation. Base payment is 10% of either the average national rental rate for the 2001 crop year for the specific land use or another appropriate rate that ensures regional equity up to $10,500. Tier II contracts range from 5-10 years, as determined by the producer, and are limited to $35,000 annually.

  • Tier III is the highest level of conservation management; it must treat all natural resource concerns to a non-degradation level and must involve the entire ag operation. Base payment is 15% of either the average national rental rate for the 2001 crop year for the specific land use or another appropriate rate that ensures regional equity up to $13,500. Tier III contracts range from 5-10 years, as determined by the producer, and are limited to $45,000 annually.

In addition to the base payment, participants may receive up to 75% (up to 90% for beginning farmers and ranchers) of the cost of adopting or maintaining conservation practices. That's as determined by the county average costs for 2001 of conservation practice maintenance, unless a maintenance agreement exists or practices are required by conservation compliance.

For more information, check out www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2002.