Applying for CSP on rented land

Farm and Food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) takes a holistic approach to implementing environmentally beneficial practices on a farm or ranch while still allowing the farmer to use the ground for productivity.

This leaves many agricultural producers with one simple question: Can I apply for CSP if I rent my land? Fortunately, for the farmers and ranchers who rent nearly 40% of agricultural land in the U.S., the answer is yes.

Rob Hultquist, a producer in Kearney County, Nebraska, has farmed corn and soybeans since 1993. The past nine years, his 1,800-acre farm has been enrolled in CSP, with nearly all of this ground being rented property. For him, talking to his landlords about the program was easy.

“If it improves the economics of the operation, they’re there for it,” he said.

For other farmers and ranchers, however, an outline of topics to discuss with a landowner may prove beneficial when initiating a conversation about enrolling their property in CSP. 

Conservation programs have long-term benefits

Working lands conservation programs are designed to improve natural resources over time, so it may take a couple of growing seasons before noticeable benefits emerge. However, the longer conservation practices are in place, the greater the impact they will have on soil and water quality. By enrolling a farm or ranch in CSP, farmer tenants are improving the overall quality and value of the property—a win for landowners, too.

CSP is a five-year program

CSP requires a five-year commitment from farmers and ranchers seeking to apply. While a five-year lease is not required between the landowner and tenant, it is important for tenants to mention this in case a landlord foresees reasons for terminating the existing rental agreement in that amount of time. 

CSP is a cost-share program

Whether or not a landowner chooses to contribute to the financial aspect of CSP will depend on two factors—the type of rental agreement they hold with their tenant and what conservation practices may be implemented on the property.

According to Hultquist, being a cash rent tenant has made the financial aspect of CSP straightforward because he’s responsible for making the associated payments, and receives 100% of the reimbursement in return.

Cash rent agreements exist when a farmer or rancher makes a fixed payment to the landowner each year, regardless of their income from crops or livestock. With cash rent agreements, it’s most common for tenants to cover the cost of non-structural CSP practices, such as cover crops and no-till, on their own. However, in the case of structural changes when a property is permanently altered, it may be more sensible for tenants and landowners to split the associated costs.

Cost-share agreements exist when a tenant and landowner agree to share the costs and income generated by the property—commonly a 50/50 split. In this type of agreement, it’s more common for a landowner to contribute to both structural and non-structural costs of the implemented conservation practices.

Tenants need landowner permission to apply

When applying for CSP, farmers and ranchers who rent ground must submit a signed letter from their landlord indicating they have permission to enroll the property. This letter does not serve as a binding contract, but instead a courtesy to acknowledge all parties are aware of the five-year commitment. It should also indicate that the farmer or rancher has possession of the land and acts as the decision maker for daily management. 

Hultquist pointed out this is a good place to document any requests your landlord may have about what not to implement on the enrolled property. With these in mind, you’re better able to select practices within CSP that keep everyone happy.

Common questions

Given the beneficial impacts of CSP on working lands, farmers and ranchers are generally able to reach agreements with their landowners that leave both parties proud stewards of the environment. However, it’s important to note the following scenarios that occasionally arise.

Multiple landlords
Farmers and ranchers who rent from multiple landlords will need to acquire a signed letter from each individual. Due to the holistic nature of CSP, producers who rent multiple properties must enroll all properties into the program.

This was the case for Hultquist, who rents ground from three different landowners. He noted the requirement to include all rented ground in his application, but didn’t mind the extra paperwork given the economic and environmental benefits of the program.

Farmers and ranchers who rent from multiple landowners should also be aware that CSP payments are capped at $40,000 per year.

Loss of rented ground
There are a number of often unpredictable reasons a tenant may lose access to rented cropland or pasture during the course of their five-year CSP plan. In these cases, farmers and ranchers are responsible for notifying their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office so their application can be reassessed to exclude the lost acres. Typically, this new calculation will result in lower reimbursement payments—however, it’s important to be aware that a significant loss of land may result in a cancelled contract.

Absentee landowners
Farmers and ranchers who work with absentee landowners should reach out as soon as possible to allow time for delayed replies. Hesitant landowners may be unresponsive due to their limited knowledge of CSP, so tenants are encouraged to share resources up front and note they will be responsible for implementing and managing assigned practices. In scenarios where a landowner can’t be reached or won’t grant permission to enroll their property, farmers and ranchers should contact their local NRCS office to discuss other options.

Enrolling an entire farm or ranch into CSP is an undertaking, but not one that should be discouraging to producers or landowners. With open, honest communication up front, both parties can work together to do what is best for the land and their bottom line for years to come.

Looking for more information on CSP and other working lands programs? Read our series of fact sheets here.