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Conservation program interest lags

Some of the excitement that initially surrounded the new $2 billion Conservation Security Program may be dimmed as more details emerge as to its requirements — and funding doesn't.

“How much is actually going to be allotted to this program and how restrictive it will be in terms of farmers qualifying are questions still to be resolved,” says John D. Anderson, assistant Extension professor at Mississippi State University, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Crop Improvement Association at Tunica.

Funding, at least for the next couple of years, “won't support a very large program,” he says. “The Bush administration has requested only $19 million in the Fiscal Year 2004 budget, and that won't go very far when it's spread nationwide. This may well change by the time the final budget is approved by Congress, but right now it looks as if funding is going to be a lot less than was originally thought.”

And Anderson says, it now appears eligibility requirements are going to be “stricter than most people expected,” in that conservation plans farmers currently have in effect may not be sufficient to qualify for the CSP payments, and determination of practices that are eligible may depend on what's “normal” for a defined area.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service recently released notice of an advance proposal for rulemaking, with a 30-day comment period that started Feb. 10, he notes. There are 15 issues on which the agency seeks comment.

Proposed rules

“The next step beyond that will be to issue the proposed rules, followed by a 60-day comment period, and then the final rule. At earliest, things likely won't be final until sometime in the summer.”

Among issues on which public comment is being sought, Anderson says, are criteria that will be used to determine resource concerns, minimum requirements for participation in each of the program's three tiers, which practices will be eligible for payment, how base payments will be determined, how to prioritize where the money goes, how the program will affect landlord/tenant relationships, etc.

Based on statutory language in the farm bill, he says, the Conservation Security Program would assist the nation's farmers in promoting conservation and improving the quality of soil, water, air, plant and animal life, and other conservation practices as determined by the secretary of agriculture.

“It recognizes the need for supporting ongoing stewardship by providing incentive payments for producers to maintain and enhance conservation practices at a non-degradation level. This would cover the maintenance of things producers are doing on their farms now, and not just for implementing practices. This is a new wrinkle in conservation programs.”

It's not a set-aside program, he notes, but rather would provide payments on working farmland, and would be available on all farmland except that enrolled in other conservation programs or land that is sodbusted. Producers would need an approved conservation plan from NRCS.

Participation levels

There are three levels, or tiers, of participation: (1) 5 percent of base payment, 75 percent cost share, and $20,000 maximum payment; (2) 10 percent of base payment, 75 percent cost share, $35,000 maximum payment; and (3) 15 percent of base payment, 75 percent cost share, $45,000 maximum payment. Tier one is for enrolling parts of a farm; tiers 2 and 3 require enrollment of the entire farm. Beginning farmers or limited resource farmers would be eligible for 90 percent cost-sharing.

In some instances, such as carrying out multiple conservation practices, demonstration projects, etc., producers would be eligible for higher payments. However, Anderson says, these “enhanced” payments were not defined in the legislation, “so no one knows at present what they would be.”

Among the many covered practices are water management, water conservation, integrated pest management, grazing/pastures, residue management, and others the secretary may determine to be appropriate.

“This program could provide a lot of new opportunities for farmers, if it is adequately funded and isn't too strict in its requirements,” Anderson says.

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