CSP SIGN – UP
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has announced the first-ever sign-up for the “Conservation Security Program” (CSP) that was part of the 2002 Farm Bill. The CSP sign-up period will be from July 6-30, 2004, at NRCS Offices in eligible Counties. CSP eligibility will be on a watershed basis, and USDA has selected a total of 18 watersheds nationwide to be part of the initial CSP sign-up. The only watershed selected in Minnesota is the Blue Earth River watershed in the South Central part of the State. The Blue Earth River watershed is comprised of 992,034 acres and has about 3,000 producers eligible for CSP funding. The watershed includes major portions of Blue Earth, Faribault and Martin Counties in Minnesota and Kossuth County in Iowa, as well as smaller amounts of farmland in surrounding Minnesota counties and some adjoining counties in northern Iowa.

The watershed approach was chosen by NRCS to implement the Conservation Security Program in a “staged” fashion, with new watersheds being added each year. This will help focus the limited annual funding allocations for CSP to the highest targeted areas for conservation enhancement, as well as allowing limited NRCS staff adequate time to properly administer the CSP Program and to provide necessary technical assistance to participating producers. Once the CSP Program is fully implemented, NRCS hopes to offer the CSP Program in about one-eighth of the Nation’s 2119 watersheds each year. So, in theory, all eligible producers should get a chance to enroll in the CSP Program over an eight-year period.

The CSP was a new conservation provision that was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, and is intended to encourage conservation practices on working crop land. Under CSP, producers are eligible to receive annual payments for implementation of various conservation practices to address natural resource concerns in their farm operation. Eligible CSP land includes private agricultural lands and some tribal lands. USDA has targeted $13.4 billion in funding over the next seven years. Congress has capped spending for the CSP Program at $41.4 million for fiscal year 2004, which is why the initial CSP sign-up is being limited to eighteen watersheds, and an estimated 3,000-5,000 farms.

CSP PARTICIPATION “TIERS”
Participation in the Conservation Security Program will be through a “three-tiered” system that will allow producers to select a level of conservation implementation that they are comfortable with. CSP payments will be based on this “three-tiered” system. Each tier has more stringent conservation requirements, and also results in higher annual CSP payments to producers. The eligibility and placement into the CSP “tiers” will be administered by NRCS, based on the “CSP Self-Assessment Workbook” completed by the producer, and a rather complicated CSP criteria and stewardship system. Producers will have the option of working with their NRCS staff to try to move to a higher CSP “tier” and to enhance CSP payments in future years.

There will be three components to CSP payments: annual stewardship payments, annual maintenance payments and practice enhancement payments. Stewardship payments are a percentage of average land rental payments for a given area. Total CSP payments annually per producer are limited to $20,000 in “Tier I”; $35,000 in “Tier II”; and $45,000 in “Tier III”. CSP contracts must be a minimum of 5 years for “Tier I” and 10 years for “Tier II” and “Tier III”.

CSP ELIGIBILITY
It appears that many Minnesota crop producers may already be eligible for “Tier I” or “Tier II” of the Conservation Security Program with their current farming practices, if they are using reduced or minimal tillage practices that leave a significant amount of crop residue on the soil surface. So, if you farm in the Blue Earth River Watershed in Minnesota and northern Iowa, or in any other eligible watersheds in the U.S., you should check out the CSP eligibility details for the initial CSP sign-up period of July 6-30. If you are in other parts of Minnesota or the U.S., you will likely have opportunities to sign-up for the CSP Program in future years, so it is a good idea to become familiar with CSP criteria and requirements. For more information about the Conservation Security Program, a list of eligible CSP Watersheds, or to access the “CSP Self-Assessment Workbook”, please contact your local NRCS Office, or go to the NRCS CSP Web site at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/ .

NORTHSTAR ETHANOL A REALITY
The Blue Earth County Board of Commissioners approved a “Conditional-Use” Permit for Northstar Ethanol, LLC, at their meeting on June 15, 2004. Final agreement on city utilities and services has also been reached between Northstar Ethanol and the City of Lake Crystal. This has cleared the way for construction of the Northstar Ethanol Plant, a 49 million gallon ethanol plant, to be located two miles west of Lake Crystal, Minnesota, just north of Highway #60. Preliminary site work has already been initiated. A public ground-breaking ceremony is being planned for early-mid July.

Editors note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.