The Trump administration this month made several key changes to USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program rule in the Federal Register — changes some farmers like and others don't.
Advocates say the rule change will incentivize producers to expand conservation activities. Critics say the new rule tends to favor larger farms, leaving small and midsized farms unrewarded for conservation efforts.
CSP, a popular program run by USDA in all 50 states and established by the 2018 Farm Bill, offers financial incentives to farms that make conservation efforts, such as developing wildlife habitat, improving grazing conditions and sequestering carbon.
Since last November, USDA records show the agency received some 600 comments on the interim final rule. Based on that feedback, USDA staffers say they changed the rule. The changes include prioritizing some conservation goals over others, rewarding new conservation efforts more than existing ones and changing payment rates.
"The rule change calls into question whether the program exists solely to have an environmental outcome or if its purpose is to support farmers who are doing the right thing," said Eric Deeble, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "I think those separate goals have to be balanced because these are taxpayer dollars. But the new rule isn't balanced."
Deeble called the rule change a "slap in the face" to small producers. He said farms with existing conservation efforts will receive significantly less support according to the changed rule than farms that have few or no conservation efforts in place but choose to make one new change.
"The rule places too much priority on new and big. I'd prefer a more thoughtful rule that rewards both existing and new efforts, and also considers farms of all sizes," said Deeble.
Small farm leaders have expressed concern that the new rule rewards changes to large acreage or livestock numbers more than the faithful work of some small farms.
The new rule also leaves minimum payment rates ambiguous. In its original form, the rule awarded small farms a minimum of $1,500 per year if that farm met certain conservation benchmarks.
Now, experts say, the new rule may not set a minimum payment amount. Industry leaders say they fear small farms may invest in conservation infrastructure expecting to get reimbursed, but may not receive what they need to make it worth their time and money.
But some policy experts say the favoritism shown toward larger farms in the new rule makes sense. Realistically, they say, one large farm making conservation changes will likely have a much bigger impact on the environment than dozens of small farms making the same changes. The new incentive structure, therefore, is weighted toward large producers.
A USDA spokeswoman said the program has already been successful in helping farms reach conservation goals across the U.S.
In a statement, Kevin Norton, acting chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the final rule aligns better with the agency's other existing conservation programs and will "help farmers put more robust conservation activities in place."