The Conservation Security Program (CSP) was hailed as an ideal green program after the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill. After two years, budget fights and mixed comments from farmers and politicians alike, the USDA says they are ready to implement the program this summer.
Now the USDA faces another problem--determining priority watersheds and dwindling down a pool of 1.4 million eligible producers to 3,000 to 5,000 contracts. CSP funds must be focused since economically the $41 million budget in fiscal year 2004 won't allow Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to write more than 5,000 contracts.
In order to implement CSP this fiscal year and begin enrollment this summer, the NRCS will immediately begin to train employees on the selection process to determine priority watersheds and establish enrollment categories as described in the Federal Register notice published today. According to a Reuters article, "Regulations should be unveiled within weeks to launch the new conservation program, said a spokeswoman for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service."
"Watersheds are nature's boundaries and are a good way to group together producers working on similar environmental issues," Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman says. "With a rotation through the nation's watersheds, every farmer and rancher will have a chance to participate in the program and will provide the flexibility needed to expand the program as more funds become available."
Administratively, the law requires that NRCS not incur more than 15% technical assistance costs associated with CSP. Under this scenario, a nationwide program would not work; a watershed rotation offers a fair, science-based alternative.
All CSP applications that meet the sign-up criteria will be placed in an enrollment category regardless of available funding. In addition to legal contract requirements, the categories will consider the applicants' current stewardship (soil condition, tillage intensity, existing practices and activities) and will sort producers based on these factors. Categories also will examine producers' willingness to perform additional conservation activities during their CSP contract.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says, "USDA's proposals for selecting watersheds and determining producer eligibility appear to be unnecessarily complicated and exclusionary." Harkin, also the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture committee, adds, " USDA is attempting to strangle this program in the crib, assuming Congress will go along with its plan to shortchange CSP for years into the future."
CSP is a voluntary program that supports ongoing conservation stewardship of agricultural working lands and enhances the condition of America's natural resources. Additional information on CSP, including the Federal Register notice, public comments and frequently asked questions, is at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp.