Last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, clashed with a Bush Administration official over the potential cost of making a soil conservation program available nationwide. The Conservation Security Program, which Harkin authored in the 2002 Farm Bill, rewards farmers for practices that protect soil and water quality.
Most farmers have not had the chance to apply for the payments because of cuts in the program's budget. Arlen Lancaster, who is chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and oversees the program for USDA, told the Senate Ag Committee that expanding the program nationwide would cost $9 billion a year. That would be more than half the $16.5 billion that farmers received from all government farm programs last year.
Calls $9 billion estimate bogus
Harkin, as chairman of the ag committee, has made the CSP a top priority this year in trying to expand the program. He notes that finding the money to do so will be a major challenge. The administration's estimate, if seen as valid, could make it harder for Harkin to get support for expanding the CSP program.
Harkin called Lancaster's estimate "a really bogus number," noting it assumed that half of the nation's cropland would be enrolled in the program. "I don't think it wold be but about one-ninth of his estimate," says Harkin. So far, fewer than 20,000 of the nation's 2 million farms are enrolled in the CSP program. The average annual payment is $11,187 per farm.
Following is the text of Harkin's testimony at the senate ag committee hearing last week:
Looking at CSP, EQIP programs
"Today's hearing covers the implementation of two programs that promote conservation on lands in agricultural production: the Conservation Security Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This hearing will examine the choices that have been made in implementing these programs and whether they are working as intended and delivering maximum environmental benefits.
"The Conservation Security Program was one of my initiatives in the 2002 Farm Bill. The objective is to pay farmers and ranchers for the environmental goods they produce – to pay them not for what they grow, but for the benefits of how they grow it. Conservation and environmental benefits produced from land in production have value to society, just as commodities do.
"On the positive side, CSP is up and running in all 50 states, with a high level of producer interest. On the other side, CSP has been compromised in two ways. The dedicated funding has been taken away in appropriations and the budget reconciliation bills; and USDA regulations have distorted what we enacted in a way that excludes many of the producers we intended the program to benefit, and fails to maximize the conservation benefits CSP has the potential to provide.
Why limit CSP to watersheds?
"For the first time ever, in 2003 Congress offset the cost of natural disaster assistance by cutting a mandatory program in the farm bill. We would never consider telling Louisiana that the cost of recovery for New Orleans would come out of their state's highway funds, or tell California that rebuilding after an earthquake would mean we would reduce other federal spending in their state. We must never accept taking conservation funds to pay for disaster assistance.
"Rather than the nationwide program we enacted, the program has been limited to just 12.6% of the watersheds in the continental United States. Even in those watersheds, many producers who would be willing to adopt better conservation practices are largely excluded. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has chosen to give priority to farmers who have already adopted conserving practices and exclude those who need cost-share and transitional funding in order to adopt those practices.
"This hearing will examine whether these choices by NRCS are consistent with the program created in the 2002 Farm Bill, and whether they are the best way to achieve the maximum conservation benefits with available funds for the program.
EQIP also needs to be examined
"We will also examine the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides cost-share and incentive payments for conservation. A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office identified significant questions about the funding allocation formula used to allocate the annual funding to the states. This is particularly whether the factors in the allocation formula are closely tied to the program objectives – improving conservation on land in agricultural production – and supported by the best available data. It is important that these EQIP funds are allocated to match the conservation needs our country faces.
"The backlog of applications for EQIP funds varies widely from state to state – in 2005, the last year for which figures are available, according to the NRCS Web site, the percentage of unfunded applications for EQIP varied from 7.4% in Hawaii to over 73% in New Jersey. In Iowa, over 60% of all applications were turned down. Georgia had over 38% of all applications go unfunded. To me, this suggests that the problems identified with the allocation formula may be resulting in many good conservation projects going unfunded. This hearing will consider the EQIP allocation issue, and look at how both of these programs are functioning to promote good conservation practices on working land."