USDA to leave most farmers out of Conservation Security Program; Public input ignored

USDA selects Conservation Security Program watersheds

WASHINGTON, D.C, May 19, 2004: The Bush Administration announced its selection of the few watersheds where a small number of farmers and ranchers will be eligible for the Conservation Security Program (CSP) this year.

"The USDA has prepared a map of the U.S. with the watersheds it selected for the CSP which dramatically illustrates the Administration's short-sighted approach to the program. Huge areas on this map are completely blank, including most of the southwest, and all of New England. Major agricultural states such as California and Florida, also draw a blank. In the entire mid-Atlantic region, only one watershed is on the map," said Martha Noble, a policy analyst with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "USDA tries to cover over the deficiencies of its restrictive implementation with an estimate that over 27,000 farms and ranches and 14 million acres are within the selected watersheds. But the USDA's restrictive approach to CSP farmer and rancher eligibility means that even in these few selected "priority" watersheds, most of these farms and ranches and agricultural acres will be excluded from the CSP."

CANTON, Minnesota, May 3, 2004: The Bush Administration announced its plan to leave thousands of farmers out of a program intended for them, by severely limiting eligibility for the new Conservation Security Program to a few watersheds. The US Department of Agriculture announcement flies in the face of the 14,000 farmers and citizens who submitted comments on a draft rule released earlier this year, by far the most comments ever received on a conservation program. Virtually all opposed the restrictive approach of offering the program in selected watersheds, instead of following the 2002 Farm Bill which orders a nationwide program open to enrollment by all farmers who practice strict conservation practices.

“Did they even read the comments? Farm groups, commodity organizations, conservationists, and environmentalists have never been so united in support of a national farm conservation program,” said Loni Kemp, Senior Policy Analyst at the Minnesota Project. “How can President Bush ignore the law? The Farm Bill says the Conservation Security Program is to be offered nationwide, without any ranking system,” said Kemp.

While the Bush Administration cites limited funding of $41 million for the current fiscal year which runs through September, they ignored the fact that the budget cap for next fiscal year was removed by Congress. Beginning in October, the program returns to its full funding status, on par with commodity subsidies.

Nevertheless, the USDA announcement clearly states that the restrictions are intended to be permanent, and will be included in the final rule to be published late this spring. Different watersheds are to be chosen each year based on a complicated formula. For those lucky enough to live in a selected watershed, applicants will also be assigned “categories” based on a complex list of conservation practices, with the outcome that only those farms with the most advanced conservation will be eligible.

“We encourage the Bush Administration to use the admittedly tight $41 million available right now by letting the state offices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) enroll farms on a pilot basis without a rule, as has often been done for other new programs,” said Kemp. “This will work the kinks out of the system. The Bush Administration should keep its eye on the long-term promise of this program. They should produce a final rule and trained staff to deliver the program nationwide in accordance with the law starting in October.”

Commenters on the proposed rule also decried low payment rates, requirements that farmers meet high conservation standards as a precondition for applying rather than using the program to achieve standards, severe limitations on choice of conservation practices, and limitations on which resources can be addressed. It is not known how USDA will treat these concerns in the final rule.

“President Bush needs to put his Administration’s actions where their rhetoric is,” said Kemp. “Chief Bruce Knight of the NRCS loves to talk about the Conservation Security Program as the ‘dawn of a new day for conservation,’ and ‘an incentive environment in which producers are pulled toward greater conservation effort – and thus choose to seek out opportunities to do more.’ He said, ‘Because CSP is a resource-based enhancement program, producers on all types of agricultural uses and agricultural operations will be eligible to enroll.’ We agree.”

“Speeches are nice, but we need action. The Conservation Security Program must not be strangled at birth by telling the vast majority of farmers that they simply are not eligible because of where they live. USDA should reconsider and listen to the input they received. In light of likely limitations on future commodity subsidies, we need this program implemented according to its full vision as a model for an alternative farm policy that supports farmers for the conservation benefits they provide,” said Kemp.

See for links to the USDA announcement and other information.

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