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 you.”
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
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,”
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 possible].”
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
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 do.