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Published August 10, 2010, 08:31 AM

Minnesota is leader in use of Conservation Stewardship Program

LEWISTON, Minn. — Minnesota’s farmers and conservationists owe themselves a big collective pat on the back. It turns out the Gopher State is a national leader in its utilization of one of the most innovative federal conservation farm initiatives out there: the Conservation Stewardship Program.

By: Adam Warthesen,

LEWISTON, Minn. — Minnesota’s farmers and conservationists owe themselves a big collective pat on the back. It turns out the Gopher State is a national leader in its utilization of one of the most innovative federal conservation farm initiatives out there: the Conservation Stewardship Program.

CSP, for which farmers can sign up for at any point in the year, rewards producers for securing conservation on the land and provides incentives for including additional conservation practices on their farms.

In the past year, Minnesota received more CSP dollars than any other state and was second only to Missouri in the number of contracts signed, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is implementing the program. This is the first CSP signup since the program was revamped and strengthened in the 2008 farm bill.

CSP not only brought almost $10 million of conservation money into Minnesota this year, but more than 900 farmers here became new contract holders. That’s impressive, especially when one considers Minnesota topped larger states like Texas in amount of program funding and new contract holders.

As Minnesota NRCS State Conservationist Don Baloun recently told me, “We seem to have the perfect recipe for utilizing CSP in this state — conservation-minded farmers, farm organizations and partners committed to getting the word out on the program, and an overall recognition that working farmland can improve the environment.”

Diversity

Part of what makes CSP appealing is the diversity of farms that find value in the program. Across the nation this program is working for dairy, beef and hog farmers, as well as crop and vegetable operators. Even pasture and forestry lands are eligible for the program. Some of the practices CSP is helping propagate across Minnesota include managed grazing, resource conserving crop rotations and wildlife habitat restoration, all of which have high conservation value and produce many benefits for the public.

I’ve been on farms that received CSP contracts, and it’s exciting to see the creative ways farmers are incorporating and balancing conservation as they produce crops and livestock.

But the program’s success isn’t just a numbers game: CSP represents an innovative approach to farm policy by providing financial rewards for stewardship outcomes produced on working farmland. Pressure is mounting on more traditional farm programs to quantify what, if any, benefits they provide. But CSP was ahead of the curve and cast in the mold of, “How can farm policy support farmers and deliver conservation benefits to society?”

Challenges

While CSP has made big strides the past year and has the potential to do even more — the 2008 farm bill aims to enroll nearly 13 million acres annually and dedicates $12 billion in the next 10 years — major threats loom on the horizon.

CSP has and will be targeted for cuts. Some in Washington view the conservation title as a pot to be raided when budgets tighten and deficit reduction becomes a priority.

Investments in the care and protection of our soil and water, as well as maintaining a healthy landscape for long-term food production, are not the place to cut. Policymakers should oppose shortsighted attempts to cut CSP. With such high farmer demand, its ability to contribute to solving pressing environmental issues and the fact it represents a new and better direction in agriculture policy, CSP is more of what our nation needs, not less.

Nothing is perfect, and the new CSP is no exception, yet the program is making gains and delivering for Minnesota farmers and taxpayers. Let’s hope the first year’s results are only a precursor to what our state can accomplish with this innovative program.

Editor’s Note: Warthesen is a federal policy organizer with the Land Stewardship Project in Lewiston, Minn.

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