CSP inspires Iowa farmer to plan for soil health, future profitability

Farm and Food

When Bruce Willems of Correctionville, Iowa, set out to address an erosion problem on the family farm, he didn’t realize he was beginning a lifelong conservation journey. What started out as a one-year contract to plant cover crops is now a decade-long commitment to the overall health of his farm through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), CSP is a working lands conservation program designed to help farmers and ranchers address natural resources concerns through technical and financial support. 

Contrary to easement programs, CSP does not require producers to take land out of production. It does, however, require a whole-farm approach to conservation. Each contract lasts five years, and producers are eligible to renew for an additional five years by implementing more conservation practices, called enhancements.

During his first contract, Bruce kept his focus on addressing his farm’s erosion through no-till and cover crops—an effort that was deemed successful over the course of five years. With past issues in check, he was left with the opportunity to focus on the future of his farm.

No stranger to soil health, Bruce saw his renewal contract as an opportunity to improve the farm’s soil, making it more resilient to drought and large rain events. Through his second contract, he selected enhancements, such as a multi-species cover crop mix and grazing, that would improve  the soil’s ability to retain and recycle nutrients.

“From an economic standpoint, it makes no sense to have that stuff leave your farm,” Bruce said, citing the losses farmers face when expensive inputs, such as fertilizer, are lost to runoff. “The first piece (to solving this problem) is to stop inputs from moving. The second piece is to use cover crops and diversification to make sure those nutrients are available to the plant.”

In addition to building more resilient soils, Bruce has used his second contract to try practices, such as planting pollinator habitat, that he never would have thought to do before his introduction to CSP. Because CSP is a holistic program, it creates an opportunity to implement conservation in unexpected places. For Bruce, this has included land that is challenging to farm and building sites on his property.

“Long term we might have some management costs, but from an ROI standpoint it’s not hurting my bottom line in the least to be doing these things,” he said.

Bruce, like many other farmers, is not only a conservationist but a good businessman, and the financial health of his farm is something he hopes to secure through CSP and use of conservation practices into the future. He hopes the practices he’s currently implementing will make his ground more productive, so the farmers that come after him don't have to worry about adding acres to the operation to break even.

“We’re making some choices today that are going to improve the profitability of the next generation,” he said.

Farmers enrolled in CSP are encouraged to apply for renewal contracts and should contact their local NRCS office for assistance. The deadline to apply for CSP renewals in Iowa is April 15. Applications for new CSP contracts are due April 8.