Herd of cows in an open field

Good land stewardship requires careful attention to its natural resources and the investment in time, energy, and money to manage them well. While these investments tend to pay off in the long run–in terms of soil health, water quality, and crop or livestock health–the return on investment can be hard to measure or recognize and can take many years to manifest. For these reasons, local, state, and federal incentive programs exist for crop and livestock producers hoping to begin or continue improving how they manage their land.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a unique and innovative cost-share program, administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It’s designed to help growers address natural resource concerns by providing both financial and technical assistance. CSP is specifically intended to reward good stewardship and improve current conservation systems instead of fixing existing problems. The program focuses on soil, water, and air quality, as well as production limitations, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and more efficient use of water and energy.

Natural Resource Concerns

Natural resources, from the perspective of land managers and conservationists, are all of the soil, air, water, and living things on the planet. A natural resource concern can be simply defined as the degradation of one of those natural resources, especially if its sustainability or intended use is threatened.

Generally, in the Carolinas, conservation practices focus on protecting soil from erosion or other degradation (e.g., organic matter loss) and water from degradation by nutrients or potential pathogens, however, there are hundreds of conservation practices supported by the NRCS, and these cover much more than protecting soil and water, such as protecting sensitive plant communities and habitat for songbirds. If you’d like to learn more about the full scope of these practices, please see the NRCS’s webpage on this topic.

Natural resource concerns that most strongly affect land managers are referred to as “Priority Resource Concerns,” and these resource concerns are ranked more important than others during the application and review processes. You will see this term throughout CSP rules, paperwork and online content.

There are 10 Priority Resource Concerns for the Carolinas:

  • Water Quality Degradation
  • Degraded Plant Condition (resulting from pest pressure or poor nutrient management)
  • Inadequate Habitat for Fish and Wildlife
  • Soil Erosion
  • Soil Quality Degradation
  • Inefficient Energy Use
  • Livestock Production Limitation
  • Air Quality
  • Excess Water
  • Insufficient Water

Enhancements

CSP encourages the protection of natural resources on working lands by providing cost-share money to implement over 140 conservation practices, referred to as “enhancements.” These practices are generally geared toward protecting and improving natural resources in crop and livestock systems, but also in adjacent lands (for example, field edges) and forested lands.

Examples of enhancements, supported on a per-acre basis, that serve crop producers include:

  • Diverse crop rotations to reduce erosion or improve soil health
  • Mulching for soil health in addition to weed suppression & water retention
  • Drip irrigation to improve water use efficiency
  • No-till and low-till management to improve soil health and reduce erosion
  • Habitat for beneficial insects such as pollinators

Examples of enhancements that serve livestock producers include:

  • Better grazing management for soil health and productivity
  • Forage establishment to improve soil health and forage quality
  • Limiting livestock access (by fencing, etc.) to streams and ditches to protect water quality
  • Limiting soil erosion near watering areas

Examples of enhancements that serve forest land managers include:

  • Forest understory development for wildlife
  • Songbird habitat improvement
  • Short-interval prescribed burn to promote herbaceous plant communities
  • Improvement, re-establishment or regeneration of several tree/forest types

Of course, all of these practices must be justified by natural resource concerns, which are assessed on-site and with the help of conservation planning software, used by NRCS conservation planners.

Many enhancements are packaged together as a “Bundle” – with several related enhancements implemented simultaneously to maximize the benefit of each. Bundles are encouraged by 15% higher payment rates per enhancement.

Two bumble bees hovering above a Bachelor's Button bloom

Eligibility, Ranking,& Enrollment

All privately owned cropland, pasture, and forestland are eligible to enroll in CSP. This includes all acres under management, regardless of whether it’s owned vs. rented, or whether it’s contiguous. Land managers must demonstrate that they exceed the NRCS-determined stewardship threshold for at least two Priority Resource Concerns and that they will meet or exceed the stewardship threshold for one additional Priority Resource Concern during the contract period.

Applications are ranked using the Conservation Assessment Ranking Tool, according to the condition of Priority Resource Concerns at the time of enrollment (in relation to the stewardship threshold), and the degree to which those conditions will be improved based on proposed conservation activities.

Special priority is given to beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.
Contracts will specify current conservation practices that the producer will continue or improve, and the new conservation practices to be implemented by the producer.

CSP signup is ongoing, with no application deadlines, although applications are ranked and contracts awarded only once per year.


Payments

All CSP contracts last five years, and recipients will receive a minimum payment of $4,000 per year, even if the sum of all activity payments is less than this value.

There are two basic types of payment made in CSP:

  1. Existing conservation activities (e.g., rewarding good stewardship)
  2. Planned activities (e.g., incentivizing improvements).

Payments made for existing activities are made based on the number of natural resources that are being well-managed, their acreage, and the general land use type (e.g., crops, pasture, or forest). Payments made for planned activities are made based on the payment rate per enhancement, and the amount of each.

Payment rates for each activity/enhancement are determined based on incurred cost and forgone income by the producer, condition of each resource at the beginning of the contract, expected conservation benefits, and how well-integrated enhancements are over the entire operation.

Enhancements pay 100% of the estimated cost of implementation, and Bundles pay 115% of the estimated cost of implementation.


More Information

  • About CSP – see the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program webpage.
  • Applying to CSP – please visit your local NRCS office, or contact your local NRCS conservationist. You may also wish to contact your state’s conservationist:
    • North Carolina NRCS: Greg Walker, Assistant State Conservationist
    • South Carolina NRCS: Gordon Mikell, State Agronomist