Natural Resources Conservation Service officials are advising farmers that if they don't sign up for the Conservation Security Program during the current enrollment period it may be a while before they get the opportunity again.

Competition for the latest Conservation Security Program sign-up, which runs from March 28 until May 27, is likely to be intense, officials said. USDA estimates that funding will be available for only 12,000 to 14,000 contracts in the 220 watersheds that are included in the current sign-up.

“Due to limited funding, the rotational sign-up opportunity to apply comes about once every eight years,” says a NRCS spokesman. “Given the program structure, you could get a toe-hold now in the three-tiered program and expand your involvement later — but you must act now.”

Authorized in the 2002 farm bill, the Conservation Security Program rewards farmers for environmental stewardship based on three levels or tiers of conservation activities. USDA says about 45 percent of the contracts in the current sign-up will be in Tier I, 45 percent in Tier II and 10 percent in Tier III.

Most agricultural land uses are eligible for qualified applicants engaging in good soil and water conservation practices, the spokesman said. To determine if you are eligible — or to prepare to be eligible when the CSP rotation reaches you — contact your USDA Farm Service Center to receive a self assessment worksheet.

To obtain more information about CSP and to see if your watershed in currently eligible for participation, go to http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp or visit your local NRCS office.

NRCS officials suggest that if you are not in this year's watersheds, you should take the time to learn about the requirements, document your work and possibly tweak your management so hat you will be prepared when your turn comes around.

They note the CSP has four payment components beginning with small stewardship and related maintenance payments. New practices can be funded at 50 percent.

“Enhancements are the program's most significant feature,” the spokesman said. “They allow participants on all tiers to pursue improvements in soil, water management, grazing lands, wildlife habitat, air quality and energy. Consequently, the largest payment is usually the enhancement payment. Payment caps are $20,000, $35,000 and $45,000 for the three tiers.