Farmers interested in the 2005 winter sign-up for the Conservation Security Program have a new tool that could help them decide if it's worthwhile to try to participate in the program.

The tool is a self-assessment workbook that allows farmers to determine their eligibility for the CSP and other USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, according to NRCS Chief Bruce Knight. NRCS administers the voluntary program.

“The workbook is significant because self-assessment is a new way of doing business with NRCS,” said Knight. The workbook was used in a pilot that proved successful in last year's program. Farmers and ranchers can assess their potential eligibility by themselves on their own time at their convenience.

The initial self-assessment will help producers identify whether their agricultural operations meet sign-up criteria and answer the question, “Have I fully addressed the minimum requirements for both soil quality and water quality on the land I manage?”

Going through the workbook, producers will get an initial idea about whether they are eligible for CSP. NRCS state offices will be preparing supplements to the self-assessment workbook that further explain program requirements and add any needed emphasis or explanation for local conditions.

Producers who may not be eligible can find out about other USDA programs that can help them achieve a higher level of conservation so they can apply for CSP in the future.

To apply for the program, potential participants should complete the self-assessment to determine if their operations meet the requirements of the program and qualify for program participation. The self-assessment process is completed using a self-screening questionnaire for each land use to be enrolled.

NRCS provides up-to-date technology, tools and resource information to meet the conservation needs of the nation's producers. Soil quality assessment information at http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/soil_quality/assessment/index.html includes the Soil Conditioning Index, a tool used to predict the consequences of cropping systems and tillage practices on the status of soil organic matter. Water quality resources, including a Manure Management Planner, are at http://wmc.ar.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/wq.html.

In November, USDA announced that the fiscal 2005 CSP will be available to eligible farmers and ranchers in 202 watersheds across the nation during a signup this winter. A signup announcement will be published along with the final rule that will detail specific program requirements in the watersheds. The program will be offered each year on a rotational basis in as many watersheds as funding allows.

The CSP self-assessment workbook is available in hardcopy or compact disk (CD) from local NRCS offices and online at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs.