Saying the 2002 farm bill represented a “historic” commitment to the American public, the National Farmers Union is calling on Congress to fully fund the law's conservation provisions, especially the new Conservation Security Program.

The NFU's board of directors released a letter it sent to House and Senate members calling on them to clarify language in the 2004 omnibus appropriations bill that it said restricts funding for the CSP and some other programs and makes it difficult for producers to determine their eligibility.

The letter came amid reports that farmers are unhappy with the USDA's proposed rule for implementing the CSP. The reports came from a series of listening sessions conducted by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in February and March,

“The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 represented a historic commitment to conservation on working lands through both increased funding and important new programs, including the innovative Conservation Security Program,” the letter stated. “As we near the second anniversary of the 2002 farm bill, we want to express our strong support for the full implementation of the CSP.”

It said that funding limits set in the farm bill were removed in the 2004 omnibus appropriations measure, creating inadequate and arbitrary rules for the CSP.

If left alone under the current proposed rules, producers will be unable to clearly determine their eligibility within the program and state conservationists will have little input into the program, said NFU President Dave Frederickson.

Pilot program

USDA's proposed rule creates what amounts to a pilot program that would be targeted at “priority watersheds” in selected areas of the country.

“The CSP was created to be operated as a mandatory program without arbitrary limits, and we believe that the final rule developed by USDA should reflect the mandatory status of the program,” Frederickson said.

“CSP can be an effective program to reward conservation stewardship and promote enhanced conservation in production agriculture. The final rule must allow CSP to be implemented on an equitable nationwide basis.”

The original language in the farm bill provided an open, national CSP, which allowed farmers, for the first time, to meet conservation standards to participate in the program. NFU believes the program should focus on small and large family-owned operations, provide full payments as intended in the farm bill, and require that USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service limit costs by adjusting eligibility requirements to fall in line with other USDA programs.

“The legislation's strong conservation features were specifically cited by President Bush when he signed it into law on May 13, 2002,” the letter said. “As we near the second anniversary of the 2002 farm law, we want to express our strong support for the full implementation of the CSP.

“The legislation created an open, national CSP, without an arbitrary limitation; for the first time, all farmers who met conservation standards were allowed to participate. The CSP also provided a new direction in conservation by rewarding good stewards of the land for continuing and maintaining conservation practices.

“We believe the final regulatory rule that must be developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture should reflect the mandatory status of the program. The current proposed CSP rule is arbitrary, inadequate, and does not reflect the true nature of the program as passed into law. The final rule must allow the CSP to be implemented on an equitable nationwide basis.”

Under the current proposed rule, the letter said, the “watershed approach does not guarantee inclusion of producers in all regions of the country, it does not allow flexibility for input from state conservationists as to which watersheds should be used to allow producer eligibility, and it does not allow flexibility in addressing diverse conservation needs and in recognizing significant conservation improvements.

“Under the proposed rule, producers would have no idea if they would be eligible, because no one knows which watersheds might be selected under the current scheme. It seems that only a very limited group of producers, in very limited geographical areas, would see any benefit.”

Opposed restriction

In the listening sessions around the country, farm groups reportedly have opposed the watershed restriction and asked USDA to write new rules to replace the current language “that seem to have been written to discourage participation in the program,” as one said.

Farmer representatives at one meeting said they estimated that under the USDA proposed rule participants would receive at most 50 cents to $1.50 per acre if the enroll in the new Conservation Security Program.

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