A federal program that pays farmers to farm environmentally smart. That’s what the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), now in its second year of funding, is, says Harlan Anderson, a Cokato, MN, grower who signed up for the 2010 program.

“This program is designed to reward and support and encourage the people who are farming right and encourage them to do more of it right,” says Anderson.

Paul Flynn, Minnesota resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), says the program is a rather new experiment.

“CSP is Congress’s attempt to bridge the way that we pay farmers with production payments. Instead of paying based on the number of acres that they plant of the seven crops (approved for deficiency payments), or the number of bushels that they grow of those crops, Congress is investigating if we could pay farmers based on the conservation that they apply to the land,” Flynn says.

The reason? The U.S. would then be on par with other countries interested in world trade that have agreed not to subsidize production, he says.

The program itself is voluntary, but eligible growers compete for funds. Minnesota, this year, was allocated a total of 700,000 acres (in two enrollments), but allowed to enroll more than 900,000 acres when other states didn’t use their allocations.

The 2011 signup has already been extended to Jan. 7, so interested growers should act now, Flynn says. Forage producers have an edge over corn and soybean growers, because they’ve generally been incorporating conservation practices in their operations. Growers must register their entire ag operations – the land they own and control – and answer a series of questions before gaining eligibility.

“They’re asked, ‘What is your rotation?’ ‘How are you applying fertilizer?’ ‘How are you applying pesticides?’ ‘What types of tillage, along with the rotations, are you doing?’

“There’s a measurement score assigned to that. Based on what you’re already doing, you’re given a benchmark score with the measurement tool, and a score for your cropland and hay land and pasture, based on how much additional conservation you’re willing to do. Those folks who score the most points are the folks who are offered the conservation contracts for CSP.”

The program offers an array of conservation enhancements to choose from, Flynn says.

Anderson was required to come up with two new practices and agreed to recycle his motor oil and split-apply nitrogen fertilizer.

Minnesota crop payments are generally $20-25/acre, while pasture payments range from $8 to $15 and forestland, $3-8, Flynn says.

“CSP offers a supplemental payment on those acres that you apply a resource-conserving crop rotation to. A resource-conserving crop rotation, by definition in the stewardship program, is the production of forage. If you already have a forage rotation, you would have to agree to lengthen the amount of years that you keep the rotation in forage.”

“This is the most exciting program that we’ve had in quite a while. If you’re interested in CSP, I would encourage you to get to your local NRCS office by that date (Jan. 7) and think about submitting that application,” he adds.

Visit the NRCS Web site to view where contracts were given in 2010.