April 1, 2005: Denise
O’Brian and her husband Larry Harris have been farming
organically for nearly thirty years. Today they grow vegetables,
strawberries and apples on 16 acres in Atlantic, Iowa; but
before they were vegetable growers, they were organic dairy
farmers, milking cows on 300 acres. O’Brian and Harris
say they were unable to compete with larger dairies and constantly
found themselves excluded from government aid--too small to
make commodity payments much of a help and too environmentally
conscious to qualify for conservation programs. “If
CSP had come along years earlier,” O’Brian reflects,
a touch of sadness in her voice, “We might have been
able to keep milking.”
Last year, O’Brian and Harris were one of the first farms
in the country to participate in the new Conservation Security
Program (CSP). CSP is a government farm program that rewards
farmers for the work they're already doing to protect and improve
environmental quality on their farms. While it was only available
to farmers in 18 watersheds nationwide in its first year, the
USDA has announced that this year it will be open to 235,000
farmers and ranchers in 220 watersheds across the country. Those
220 watersheds represent about an eighth of the country; the
USDA says it hopes to rotate the program through the entire
country over an eight-year period. Sign-up begins March 28 and
continues though May 27.
What makes CSP so different from earlier conservation programs
is that it rewards farmers based on the current quality of
their farms, not on how much of an improvement can be made.
According to Loni Kemp, senior policy analyst for the Minnesota
Project, “That is one of the beauties of CSP: it doesn’t
make a distinction between what you are doing that’s
great and what you start doing that’s great.”
It also doesn’t discriminate based on farm size. O’Brian,
whose farm qualified for five of its sixteen acres, says,
“It doesn’t matter if you have 300-acre dairy,
3000-acre dairy or 16 acres in vegetables – this is
a program that is just not geared to big farmers.”
Due to a tough budgetary year and the inability to secure
the full funding that was originally promised to the program,
not every farmer that qualifies will be able to participate.
The USDA reports there is currently $202 million budgeted
to CSP, which will likely equate to between twelve thousand
and fourteen thousand farmer contracts. Due to the budgetary
restrictions, Kemp advises those that haven’t practiced
any conservation measures in the past not to bother applying.
“The more you’ve taken care of your land over
time,” she says, “the more this program is for
This makes CSP a great opportunity for organic farmers. O’Brian
and Harris are now getting federal aid to use integrated pest
management, cover crops and crop rotations--all practices
they were doing before they signed up for CSP. Filter strips,
rotational grazing, efforts to prevent overgrazing, and safeguarding
manure applications from contaminating water resources are
also encouraged activities, according to Kemp.
CSP is set up on two levels. The category level looks at
what types and how many conservation stewardship practices
you are currently employing. This determines eligibility for
the program. Qualifying applicants are then ranked on a tier
system. The tier you are placed in determines how many years
and for how much money you are eligible, with a maximum per-year
payment of $45,000. The general rule of thumb is the more
conservation practices you follow and the more land you qualify,
the more money you will receive.
To determine your eligibility, you first need to fill out
a self-assessment. This can be done online at the Natural
Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) website (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/),
or you can pick up the forms from your local NRCS office.
(To fill out the form online you will first need to register
for a password through the USDA. This process is relatively
painless if a little time consuming; it will take a least
an hour to receive notification that you've been registered
and then you must wait another forty minutes before you're
allowed to use the password.)
For certified organic farmers, who should already have thorough
records of their farm activities, the initial assessment should
take no more than a half-an-hour. If you have not been certified,
it may take a little longer to gather together all the necessary
records, but O’Brian, whose vegetable operation is not
certified, found the effort worth it.
Once you have completed and passed the self-assessment, you
will need to schedule a meeting with an NRCS representative.
According to O’Brian, this meeting took between two
and three hours, during which time the representative questioned
O’Brian and Harris about their operation. After they
received notification of their acceptance, the couple had
to return to the NRCS office to review and sign paperwork.
While most of the NRCS staff come from a conservation background
and were not always familiar with organic practices, O’Brian
says she found them eager to learn. “The local staff
has been very open, very interested in conservation. I found
the staff was really willing to find out things they didn’t
know,” she says.
This year’s middle-of-planting-season sign-up period
has provoked some concern among farmers, but in a statement
to the press NRCS Chief Bruce Knight promised that his staff
stand ready to make it as painless for farmers as possible.
According to Knight, his staff have been told to clear their
desks and watch the weather. “If you see a couple of
days of rain forecast and you’re expecting rain delays,”
he reportedly told his staff, “be anticipating to do
as much of the one-on-one work on an individual contract [as
According to Kemp, there are three types of payments. First,
there is a basic payment per acre enrolled in the program.
Then there is an additional payment per conservation practice.
Each watershed has a list of enhancements and corresponding
payment amounts. Finally, there are opportunities to receive
money to help implement new conservation practices.
The amount of money a farm receives will also depend on the
tier to which it was assigned. The cap for Tier One is $20,000
a year for five years. Tier Two is eligible for up to $35,000
a year for ten years, and Tier Three pays up to $45,000 a
year for ten years. Due to the current funding levels, Kemp
says, it is unlikely many farmers will be funded at cap levels.
However, once a farmer has been accepted into the program,
he or she will have opportunities to add conservation practices,
enter more acreage or even move up to a higher tier.
Kemp advices farmers to get in now even if it is only with
one acre. “Even if you only have one field in now you
get your foot in the door and can move up. If you don’t
get in now you won’t be eligible for another eight years.”
So far O’Brian reports she and Harris have been very
happy with their participation in the program. They are now
working to get the rest of their acreage in and hope to move
to the third tier. Now the only problem lies in making sure
there is enough funding to keep CSP going. “I think
it is something we are going to have to continually fight
for,” O’Brian says. And fight she is ready to