Funded by the US Farm Bill, the Conservation Stewardship Programme rewards farmers and ranchers for taking care of resources on their land, through the adoption of conservation management systems.

Farmers play a significant role in managing our air, water and soil. However, as a result of the current subsidies and policies underpinning our industrialised food system, adopting sustainable practices doesn’t always make the best business case. Research from the United States Department of Agriculture, based on direct-interviews with farmers, found that many feel overwhelmed at the challenge of transitioning to a sustainable or organic system, due to: “high managerial costs and risks of shifting to a new way of farming, limited awareness of organic farming systems, lack of marketing and infrastructure, inability to capture marketing economies and the fear of additional paperwork.”

The CSP has been set-up to relieve some of that burden by providing financial assistance, as well as support, in the form of payments for managing, maintaining and expanding conservation activities, which include:

  • Planting cover crops (crops that have additional benefits, such as managing soil erosion or improving soil fertility)
  • Rotational grazing (the process of moving livestock to fresh paddocks to allow pasture to regenerate)
  • Ecologically-based pest management (away from the use of pesticides)
  • Buffer strips (areas of permanent vegetation)
  • The transition to organic farming

How well farmers are addressing priority concerns on their farm – such as soil quality and erosion, water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, air quality and energy conservation – will determine whether they are eligible to take part in the scheme and what level of payment they will qualify for.

The funding is aimed at addressing particular concerns in certain areas throughout the US. For instance, as we’ve recently witnessed in California, water conservation is a significant issue as a result of the recent drought, while Iowa is facing problems from extensive soil erosion.

To enrol in CSP, applicants must already be looking at improving one of these aspects on their farm.

The national average payment is $18 per acre, however this can vary widely depending on the type of land, the existing level of conservation and the kind of practices that are adopted as a result of enrolling in the scheme.

If you’re interested in enrolling in this year’s Conservation Stewardship Programme, you must complete the initial application form by 27th February. To apply, visit your local USDA Service Centre.

Photograph: Jason Crotty

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