|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.
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
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