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Midsoutherners stand to gain from conservation focus

Caffey said the increases for conservation-related spending come after decades of modest funding in earlier legislation. The 1996 Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act or Freedom to Farm included only about half as much as the current boost to support conservation in the 2002 legislation.

The final legislation for this year contains an additional $17 billion to expand existing programs and establish new programs for conservation, Caffey said. “Conservation spending skyrocketed more than 80 percent, so Louisiana stands a lot to gain.

“The big movers are the ‘working lands’ programs, EQIP and WHIP, which were originally developed in response to criticisms that farm conservation policy has been ‘anti-production,’“ Caffey said. “The combined funding for EQIP and WHIP now stands at $10 billion through 2007 – an 800 percent increase over 1996 levels.”

Under EQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – the federal government provides 75 percent or 90 percent of the cost for environmentally beneficial structural and management alterations to farms and ranches, primarily to livestock operations, Caffey said.

WHIP – the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program – provides 75 percent or 90 percent of the cost of wildlife habitat restoration and enhancement on private lands, he added. As of 2001, Louisiana had 203 WHIP contracts on 16,500 acres.

“A new working lands initiative – the Conservation Security Program – was also included in the new farm bill,” the LSU AgCenter economist added, explaining the $2 billion CSP is designed to correct a policy problem that meant farmers could be disqualified from conservation program assistance if they conducted their own conservation activities.

USDA has begun writing the regulations for the program for 2003. But some congressmen reportedly are considering legislation that reduce the CSP to a pilot program in one state – Iowa – in 2003 before possibly being expanded nationwide later.

“This program could be especially beneficial to Louisiana farmers participating in the LSU AgCenter’s new Master Farmer Program,” Caffey said.

Caffey also cited “sodbuster” and “swampbuster” as two earlier conservation programs that have been continued under the new farm bill. The 1985 farm bill established the sodbuster program to discourage plowing erosion-prone grasslands and created the swampbuster program to discourage draining wetlands for use as cropland.

The 1985 farm bill also established the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a voluntary program to protect highly erodible and environmentally sensitive lands and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) for wetland restoration, enhancement and protection on private lands.

In the new bill, Congress increased acreage eligible for CRP by 8 percent and acreage eligible for WRP by 112 percent, Caffey said, pointing out WRP provides annual payments and restoration costs for easements on prior wetlands converted back to their original state.

Nationally, the CRP has enrolled 33.3 million acres – more than three times the land in the National Wildlife Refuge System, Caffey says.

“At 140,000 acres, Louisiana leads the nation in land enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program,” Caffey said. “Under the new farm bill, Louisiana could see a quarter million acres in that program by 2007.”

Caffey said the prominence of conservation funding came, in part, because people and organizations more associated with wildlife and wetlands programs than with agricultural operations also participated in the process of shaping the new farm bill.

“Farm output discussions are no longer limited to crops,” Caffey said. “The evolving definition of farm outputs includes imputed products and services, such as clean water and habitat preservation.”

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