Conservation Stewardship Program provides financial and technical assistance

Ask any producer what their No. 1 job is, and most will tell you that it’s taking care of the land. Ranchers don’t only raise cattle; they farm grass. Farmers don’t just grow crops; they sustain the soil. They provide our food and fiber while they steward our air, water and open working landscapes.

Our producers — the folks out there on the ground every day — deeply understand how our actions impact the health of the land — and in turn, how the health of the land impacts our way of life. They do what’s right by the land, knowing that it could make their operations more resilient, both financially and ecologically.

Our farmers and ranchers know what a lot of us often forget: we do not have to be apart from the land to conserve it. Rather, we can be a part of it.

The Conservation Stewardship Program

Farmers and Ranchers who already implement conservation practices may be eligible for financial and technical assistance through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). This national program, run through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), began in 2002 as a way to address issues, such as soil erosion or degrading soil quality, poor water or air quality, and insufficient fish and wildlife habitat.  

The Conservation Stewardship Program “continues to be a very effective tool for private landowners working to achieve their conservation and management goals,” said NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr. “It is the largest conservation program in the United States with more than 70 million acres of productive agricultural and forest land enrolled.”

Currently, Montana has 1,283 Conservation Stewardship Program participants, mostly in North Central or Eastern Montana. In 2017, the USDA spent $43.11 million in Montana on this program alone. Even though there are so many Montanans receiving CSP funds, the program isn’t one-size-fits-all. The local NRCS agents who administer CSP work directly with farmers and ranchers to build a custom plan specific to each operation, whether it’s pastureland or cropland.

There are NRCS service agents everywhere from Ekalaka to Eureka and everywhere in between. To find an office near you, click HERE. Photo courtesy of NRCS.

Let’s say that Farmer John from Malta has already taken steps to improve his soil and water quality, but he now wants to prevent soil erosion. So John and his NRCS agent from the Malta Field Office will walk his property together and go through the long list of 170 possible enhancements. They decide which ones he could implement on his property to build upon his current process while also preventing erosion. They may decide that cover cropping or rotating crops works best for his property. Or perhaps reducing the acreage he tills or altering his grazing patterns are better options. Ultimately, those decisions are up to Farmer John. But the NRCS agent is there to provide technical assistance, help navigate the time-consuming application process and assist in the ongoing monitoring of the conservation enhancements.

As one farmer in Eastern Montana told us about the CSP application and monitoring: “There’s no way that just a normal person like me could have done it alone.”

If John keeps up the plan he created, then he will get a check from the NRCS every fall for the next five years. There’s a minimum payout of $1,500 per year, but we talked to ranchers who earned nearly $40,000 for their conservation efforts. It all depends on the actions a person takes and how much land they enroll.

Colin McWilliams: Jordan, Montana

Photos courtesy of Colin McWilliams.

Colin McWilliams and his family live on a farm 25 miles south of Jordan, Montana. In addition to running the farm, Colin has a trenching business. His wife Erin is a working nurse who is going back to school and they have four children.

“Yeah, we’re busy,” Colin told us over the phone while taking a few passes across his field on his sprayer. “You’ve got to be.”

A few years ago, Colin began to move away from conventional farming methods. He cut back on the amount he tilled each year and he began to plant cover crops. These no-till, continuous farming techniques improved his bottom line and his soil. Because he stopped tilling his fields every season, he spent less on fuel and equipment. He also conserved water and prevented erosion, which lead to better yields.

Every time a farmer works the ground, Colin explained, an inch of water evaporates from the soil. An inch of moisture can produce up to ten bushels of wheat per acre. So when a farmer takes five or six passes on the tiller before planting, he loses a lot of water and a lot of potential product. In places like Jordan, water and soil are precious. With no-till practices, that moisture stays in the ground to nourish the crops. Additionally, by keeping the stubble from last year’s harvest on the field, there is less soil erosion from rain and less evaporation from that harsh, prairie wind.

In addition to running the farm, Colin also has a trenching business. He and his trencher (pictured above) dig ditches for irrigation and plumbing across the region. Not a bad office view.
Photo courtesy of Colin McWilliams.

Farmers and ranchers regularly evaluate and re-evaluate their land management practices. They adjust as new studies come out, when neighbors test different methods or new financial circumstances arise.

Four years ago, Colin’s water and soil conservation practices made him eligible for the Conservation Stewardship Program. He heard about the program from a good friend in Garfield County. His buddy practices innovative grazing techniques and is now in his second round with CSP. His operation is more resilient to drought, plus his land can accommodate more cattle than it previously could. His friend’s success with the program inspired Colin to sign up. And although the NRCS denied his first application, he sought help from his local agent, Sue Fitzgerald, and he was accepted the second time around. Together, they implemented a plan for new conservation techniques to build upon his current strategies.

“With the CSP program, it had everything that I wanted to do already with the no-till, continuous cropping, and livestock,” Colin said. “I was wanting to do the things that they were going to pay me to do.”

Some of the sheep herd, foraging on early season cover crop.
Photo courtesy of Colin McWilliams.

During the spring of 2018, Colin made another important change to his operation. He began to move away from farming chickpeas, lentils and wheat and move toward keeping livestock. Change wasn’t easy for him, but it was necessary.

“I’ve sat in a tractor since I was twelve. For 20-some years, it’s all I’ve known,” Colin said “But when bankruptcy is in the future and you may be losing the place you’ve been on for your whole life, it’ll make you want to change.”

Farming is not cheap, and it’s not getting any cheaper. Between low commodity prices and the high cost of equipment, fuel and chemical, it’s damn near impossible to survive. The equipment alone can cost more than half of what a farmer makes each year, Colin explained, and he often hauls his harvests 150 miles to Lewistown or 200 miles Billings. On top of the financial burdens, there are the everyday stresses of changing weather, devastating drought or destructive hail storms. For example, many farmers across central and eastern Montana will spend the next 10 to 12 years recovering from the 2017 drought. That drought impacted folks hard, partly because the previous winter provided above-average moisture and many folks didn’t buy crop insurance that year. People didn’t see it coming.

To read more of August Schield’s coverage of the Lodgepole Complex Fires, click HERE.

“It’s what farmers and ranchers go through every year and a lot of people don’t know that,” Colin said. “We don’t control the weather … we really don’t have any control over anything.”

That same summer, only 50 miles northwest of Jordan, the Lodgepole Complex Fire burned over 270,000 acres. Farmers and ranchers lost cattle, fields and grasslands as hot, windy conditions spread the flames across the plains. Countless hay bales and miles of fencing burned, along with 16 homes. It was a stressful time for residents, to say the least.

Due to all the unknowns and financial stresses, transitioning to livestock made the most sense for him and his family. This year, he will run 1,000 ewes on a combination of grass and farmland. Eventually, he plans to convert all of his fields to grass and run an intensive grazing operation similar to his friend’s in Garfield County. Intensive grazing means he will move the livestock every two weeks to a different pasture, and he won’t return them to the previous pasture for nearly three months. This process, while labor intensive, conserves the grass and soil and allows ranchers to run more animals.

Unfortunately, the new conservation practice nearly cost Colin his CSP contract. Colin and the NRCS are currently four years into his five-year contract, and he long ago established the required yearly actions he must take to receive funding. When he changed his business model from farming to livestock in order to make more money, he struggled to meet his contract’s requirements even though intensive grazing is a good conservation practice.

Here in Montana, the NRCS awards farmers and ranchers who actively address soil erosion, soil quality, water quality, plant condition, and fish and wildlife habitat. It’s possible to implement CSP alongside livestock grazing, but it’s harder to find eligible conservation activities. Some Montana producers say that CSP discriminates against cattle and livestock.

Luckily, it all worked out for Colin and his family. He and his local NRCS agent found ways to fulfill his conservation requirements. Colin remains in the program, but he will likely not renew next year. His situation speaks to a trend that many producers often experience: the government programs that support our producers aren’t always flexible enough. Farmers and ranchers need flexibility when changing weather and financial conditions prompt them to respond quickly and accordingly.

Ultimately, Colin said, the Conservation Stewardship Program has helped him take his operation to the next level. Every fall, regardless of commodity prices, he receives a check for the work he’s done on his land. With the CSP payments, he bought the native grass seed that he will use as he transitions from farming to intensive grazing. Thanks to CSP and his conservation practices, his operation will become more sustainable, both ecologically and economically. And hopefully, when his kids grow up, his little slice of heaven will exist to pass on to them.

“As long as I don’t lose this place, it wasn’t a waste,” Colin said.

Tom Page: Upper Salmon River Basin, Idaho

Tom Page and his brother run Big Creek Ranch along the Pahsimeroi River in Idaho’s Upper Salmon River Basin. In 2009, they bought their first in a handful of neighboring ranches that had been neglected over the years. These days, they run roughly 300 cattle, irrigate hay and lease grazing land to nearby ranchers. It took a lot of work to get their property to where it is today, and the Conservation Stewardship Program was one of the many tools they used to make improvements to their land and water.

In 2016, Tom enrolled their entire ranch into the Conservation Stewardship Program. Like Colin McWilliams, Tom heard about the program from another rancher. Also like Colin, Tom’s initial application was not accepted.

Once the NRCS did approve his application, he and his brother went through the entire list of possible enhancements. They decided on the activities they already did, the ones they had already planned to do, and the ones they would be willing to do if the NRCS would pay them.

In total, their CSP contract mandates that they complete 34 conservation activities each year in order to improve fish habitat, soil quality and soil moisture. Not only do these conservation enhancements positively impact his own ranch, but they also benefit folks downstream. When he and his brother purchased the land, the Pahsimeroi River was dry in many parts due to  previous diversions and poor irrigation practices. The segmented river negatively impacted endangered fish populations and neighboring irrigators. These days, though, the river connects. It is a thriving habitat for Chinook Salmon, and the Pahsimeroi provides enough water for neighboring farmers and ranchers.

“(CSP) is the only way I can get paid for doing some of these things,” Tom said. “It’s one way that we can monetize the good practices that we do. It’s not like we wouldn’t do some of these things any way.”

It’s rare for a farm or ranch to survive these days without some financial creativity. Producers often need a secondary form of income. For Tom and his brother, conservation is a supplemental way for his operation to make money. His cows aren’t certified organic, so he isn’t making extra money on them. His property is divided by parsels of federal land, so he can’t offer private hunting trips in exchange for money like other ranchers do. So the Pages earn a bit of extra money from doing conservation work on their private working land.

However, the Conservation Stewardship Program doesn’t always work well for Big Creek Ranch. In the beginning, it was difficult to comply with the program’s mandatory timeline. They were accepted into the program in July, and had to perform their required practices by September. There wasn’t a lot of time, during an already busy season, to implement changes. Every fall, CSP producers must report the status of their conservation activities to the NRCS. Some find it difficult to tack on the additional monitoring and reporting work; others find the cost of that monitoring and reporting work to be greater than the payment they receive.

Photo by August Schield.

Also, Tom suggested that the USDA could change the program so that it is more applicable to Western farming and ranching techniques. Many of the current practices, he suggested, are tailored to Midwestern farmers and their practices. Currently, Tom sits on the board of Western Landowners Alliance, a non-profit that advocates for landowners in the West. He works with the group to devise ways for CSP to offer more conservation activities that Western farmers and ranchers could apply to their specific operations.

Overall, however, Tom appreciates the program and what it tries to do. While other government-funded conservation programs for private landowners assist in piecemeal approaches, such as fence building or irrigation work, this program looks at the whole picture — an entire operation. CSP takes an ecosystem approach to conservation. That, in turn, ultimately benefits folks beyond the Big Creek Ranch property line. Irrigators downstream benefit from the clean, consistent water flow, and the public benefits from clean water and healthy wildlife habitat that the ranch provides.

“The reason I keep up with it is because I really think that it’s the best current federal program we have to try to pay for ecosystem services,” Tom explained. “It’s really the only federal program that does that.”

Changes to the program

Sandru Ranch along the Jefferson River in Southwest Montana.
Photo by August Schield.

The feedback from producers like Tom and Colin seems justified. The land and the weather aren’t stagnant, and neither are our farmers and ranchers. They constantly change their systems to keep up with shifting markets, changing weather and new land management practices. So it makes sense that the programs that support them should also be willing to shift and transform. After all, successful farmers and ranchers are nothing if not flexible.

What’s the good news? Folks at the USDA seem to have absorbed some of that feedback, as the 2018 Farm Bill contains some changes to the Conservation Stewardship Program.

There are changes to the minimum compensation per acre, to the application ranking process, and to the application renewal process. Some conservation activities, such as cover cropping and grazing, will now receive more money. And there’s a new grasslands conservation initiative as well as more funds set aside to help folks transition to organics.

As the NRCS works through the details, the jury is still out on how the new rules will impact the program and its recipients. It’s undoubtedly good news, however, that the program still exists. The federal House version of the 2018 Farm Bill cut the Conservation Stewardship Program and merged it with another conservation program, but luckily, the Senate chose to keep the programs separate. The president’s most recent budget appears to cut CSP, but time will tell how it plays out.

Meanwhile, our ranchers and farmers’ livelihoods are at stake.

“At the moment, with the way farming is going, I’m transitioning everything I have back to grass because it’s not affordable to farm anymore,” Colin McWilliams said. “Prices are totally out of hand… If I don’t get out of farming soon, I’m going to go bankrupt”

In general, the Conservation Stewardship Program supports our farmers and ranchers in their effort to do what’s right by the land. Their conservation practices have positive impacts that extend far beyond the fence line; the clean air, clean water and healthy soils benefit each of us. Farmers and ranchers are the on-the-ground conservationists who understand what some of us often forget: that our actions impact the land and our livelihoods are tied to that land.

-Amanda Garant. Updated May 17, 2019 at 8:30am.

Applications for the next round of funding were due on May 10, but interested producers should start talking to their local NRCS agent now in order to gear up for 2020. For more information, click here.

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