The cutoff date for farmers and ranchers to apply to participate in the 2012 sign-up for the Conservation Stewardship Program is Jan. 13, 2012.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which runs the program, has given indications the deadline may be extended, but at this point in time the extension cannot be assured so farmers interested in participating are advised to get their short, two page application form turned-in by Jan. 13.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which helped develop the program and has followed its progress closely, has issued a five-page Information Alert on the 2012 sign-up.  The document is available free online at www.sustainableagriculture.net.  In addition to basic sign-up information and pointers, the Alert also describes changes made to the program for this sign-up, including new conservation practices and enhancements being offered.

The CSP is a working lands conservation program available on a nationwide basis.  CSP offers technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers for adopting and maintaining high standards of resource conservation and environmental stewardship.  Assistance is geared to both the active management of existing conservation systems and for implementing new conservation activities on land in agricultural production.

In the program’s first three enrollment years (2009, 2010, and 2011), NRCS has enrolled 30,197 farmers and ranchers operating nearly 38 million acres of farm and ranch land that is now under five-year, renewable CSP conservation contracts.  For those first three enrollment classes, annual CSP payments are currently over $510 million a year on a nationwide basis.

The enrollment process is competitive, based on environmental benefits, and will be even more competitive than usual in 2012 as the total acres to be enrolled will be as much as a third less than the 12.8 million acre per year level provided by the 2008 Farm Bill.  The 2012 iteration of CSP will have an enrollment cap between 9 and 10 million acres due to a budget cut to the program made by Congress in the FY 2012 Agricultural Appropriations Act.

Eligible lands include cropland, grassland, prairie land, improved pastureland, rangeland, non-industrial private forest lands, and agricultural land under tribal jurisdiction.  Applicants must demonstrate they have effective control over these lands to be eligible, either through ownership or reasonably secure leases.

Producers wanting more detailed information may want to review NSAC's Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program available for free download at http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/.  The Guide provides clear information on conservation activities eligible for CSP payments to improve conservation performance and environmental benefits.  It also includes step-by-step enrollment guidance, key definitions, and helpful hints.  A new five-page section of the Guide provides data on the program’s first two sign-up periods in 2009 and 2010.  This data section includes analysis of program participation by geographic region, land use type, commodity type, and the top conservation practices and enhancements chosen by farmers and ranchers who have enrolled in the progr am.