CSP: The best disaster insurance tax money can buy

By Kevin Brussell and Dan Specht

October 7, 2003, Land Stewardship Project: It's fall, and all across Illinois and Iowa farmers like us are putting in long hours of harvest time. After a late summer drought in the western Corn Belt, a dark question hangs over our fields: how much of an immediate disaster did the dry weather create? But there are some longer-term concerns in the fall air as well. This drought showed yet again how vulnerable our agriculture is when based on the extensive production of just two crops: corn and soybeans. Ironically, a federal program that could actually increase agriculture's resiliency and improve the environment by making Midwestern farms more diverse could be killed before it even gets off the ground. The Conservation Security Program, called CSP for short, could be the best disaster insurance ever created for American agriculture. Actions on the part of the USDA and Congress during the next few weeks will determine if this innovative program gets a chance to become reality.
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Enacted in the 2002 Farm Bill, CSP would reward farmers for diversifying into such enterprises as grass-based livestock, hay, and cropping systems that include more small grains such as oats. It would begin to correct the bias of current farm policy, which penalizes farmers like us for growing anything but a few specified row crops. Farmers want to diversify, but the government tables are tipped toward overproduction of corn and soybeans.

Diversity provides environmental and economic insurance in rural areas. Because they reduce pollution runoff, fields covered in grass and hay help make our lakes and streams fishable and swimmable, while protecting drinking water from contamination. And as we're seeing this year in particular, diversification is financially a smart way to farm. Despite the drought, people who grew small grains had near record yields in some places. Hay fields and pastures were hurt late in the summer, but after some timely rains these perennial systems are coming back enough this fall to provide valuable livestock feed. Farmers with cattle were able to chop drought-stricken crops early and make them into silage, a good source of feed. To take advantage of small grains, hay, pasture and silage, farmers must raise livestock on their farms. But the commodity system discourages such enterprise diversity.

No wonder environmentalists and plain old taxpayers were excited when CSP was made into law.

However, the USDA and the Bush Administration have dragged out CSP implementation for so long that its very survival is threatened. The final CSP rule was, by law, supposed to be implemented by February 2003. But not even a proposed rule has been issued.

We could have had CSP running and delivering benefits to society today if the USDA and the Bush Administration had done their job. Farmers have already lost the chance to utilize CSP in 2003. For farmers like us to take advantage of the program-- and for the benefits of diversity to start taking hold in 2004-- we need to know the rules ASAP.

On top of USDA's negligence, the U.S. House voted this summer to eliminate funding for CSP implementation in 2004. However, the Senate Appropriations committee voted to fully fund implementation of the $3.77 billion program, setting up a showdown this fall when a Congressional conference committee is expected to hammer out CSP financing. Now here's the kicker: there's talk of raiding CSP's budget to provide drought relief. Draining CSP now is ensuring that there will be more disasters in the future as we make our farming system even more vulnerable.

The future of CSP could be determined by Thanksgiving. All of us, farmers and nonfarmers alike, need to contact our lawmakers and tell them it's time CSP was implemented and fully funded. The Republican leadership that runs the U.S. House needs to get that message, and all of our lawmakers need to realize that CSP is something that will have positive impacts far into the future. In Illinois, a key lawmaker is Rep. Ray LaHood. In Iowa, it's Rep. Tom Latham. Both belong to the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

By its nature, agriculture will always be bumped around by the weather, markets and world events. But a program like CSP will help put taxes to work rewarding the kind of farming that can ride out those rough spots, and benefit society to boot.

Kevin Brussell is a Casey, Ill., crop and livestock farmer and a board member of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. Dan Specht is a McGregor, Iowa, crop and livestock farmer, and a member of the Land Stewardship Project Federal Farm Policy Committee.