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Few farmers comment on conservation program

CLARKSDALE, Miss. — OK, run this through your mental calculator: 148 is what percent of 2 million? Of course, you immediately come up with 0.007399999999999999 percent, give or take a few decimal points.

That's the fraction of the 2 million or so farmers in the U.S. who saw fit to file comment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Conservation Security Program, established in the 2002 farm bill to provide financial and technical assistance over 10 years to farmers who develop and maintain conservation systems that solve critical natural resource/environmental concerns.

There were, according to USDA, 700-plus total comments filed representing individuals, 36 national organizations (including 12 conservation/wildlife/environmental groups, nine commodity groups, four sustainable agriculture/organic farming groups, a whopping two agribusinesses, 11 state departments of agriculture/natural resources/other agencies, one general farm group, more than 40 state or local conservation districts/groups, 15 state/local farm/food groups, 14 state commodity groups, eight state Farm Bureaus, and four state/regional Farmers Union chapters.

The most responses, in order, came from Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Montana, South Dakota, Washington, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts.

Excepting Florida, not a single Southern state was represented in the top rankings of comment numbers.

Does the minuscule number of total responses indicate that U.S. farmers and agribusinesses are so unanimously happy with the program and the way it's designed that they didn't think any comment necessary?

Apparently so, according to a release from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, whose Washington representative, Fred Hoefner, says, "Our analysis shows overwhelming support for the CSP and remarkably unified positions on its implementation."

Of the 700-plus responses to USDA's call for comment, only six responses were negative.

When he signed the farm bill, President Bush termed the conservation provisions and funding "one of the best things" in the legislation. Good things apparently take time, though. The Feb. 7 deadline for completion of the rulemaking came and went and USDA was still in the comment process, which ended April 3. The agency is now fine-tuning the program, to then be followed by yet another comment period. Thus, it's likely to be the end of summer, officials say, for implementation to begin.

"The administration should redouble its efforts, issue the long-overdue rule, and get these comprehensive conservation incentives into farmers' hands this year," Hoefner said. "Delay in implementing this program serves no one — not the stewardship-minded farmers and ranchers who have been waiting for it, nor the general public, which deserves a smarter approach to ranch and farmland conservation."

Earlier this year, to offset the cost of emergency disaster payments, congressional leaders lopped $3.1 billion from the original CSP allocation, capping the program at $3.77 billion. Several senators, including Mississippi's Thad Cochran and Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle have said they are committed to getting the cap removed and restoring full CSP funding in an appropriations bill later this year.

Given the nation's budget crunch, it may be tough sledding.

In the meantime, 0.007399999999999999 percent of the nation's farmers have told the USDA how they feel about the program.

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