Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said farmers can begin signing up for a new enrollment of farms in the Conservation Security Program at Farm Service Agency offices nationwide.

The new sign-up, announced at the National Agriculture Day Luncheon in Washington, will make the Conservation Security Program available to 235,000 farmers in 220 watersheds across the country. The sign-up will continue through May 27.

Although 235,000 farmers will be eligible, USDA will only write an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 contracts under the cash-strapped Conservation Security Program. Congress provided $205 million for the CSP in fiscal 2005, far less than the $4 billion envisioned for the program when it was included in the 2002 farm bill.

“This is a unique program that offers payments for enhancing natural resources, rewards those farmers and ranchers who are model conservationists and provides incentives for other producers to meet those same high standards of environmental performance,” said Johanns.

Previous sign-ups for the CSP were limited to a pilot program of 18 watersheds in fiscal year 2004 and an expanded program with 202 watersheds announced by USDA last fall.

Johanns said the 220 watersheds in the new sign-up represent more than 185 million acres in every state and the Caribbean Area. The 2005 CSP sign-up includes the 202 watersheds announced by USDA last November and the 18 pilot program watersheds from the fiscal year 2004 sign-up. Producers who have a current CSP contract are not eligible for the latest sign-up.

The sign-up announcement and an amendment to the CSP interim final rule that will detail specific program requirements will be published in the Federal Register soon, according to Johanns.

The Conservation Security Program, which was conceived by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is a voluntary conservation program that supports ongoing stewardship of farmland and by rewarding producers who meet high standards of conservation and environmental stewardship.

Payments will be made using three tiers of conservation contracts and are capped at $20,000, $35,000 and $45,000 annually and will last for 5 years for Tier I and 5 to 10 years for Tier II and Tier III.

Payments can include four components: 1) an annual stewardship component for the base level of conservation treatment, 2) an annual component for maintenance of existing conservation practices, 3) a one-time new practice component for additional needed practices, and 4) an enhancement component for exceptional conservation effort.

Enhancement activities could include limited pesticide applications, total farm energy audits, shelterbelts for wildlife and air quality, and riparian forest buffers for restoring critical stream habitat.

The CSP program sign-up also includes a renewable energy component. Eligible producers will receive compensation for converting to renewable energy fuels such as soy biodiesel and ethanol, for recycling 100 percent of on-farm lubricants, and for implementing energy production, including wind, solar, geothermal and methane production.

To apply for CSP, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service asks potential participants to complete a self-assessment workbook-available on the Web or from local NRCS offices to determine if their operations meet the requirements of the program and qualify for program participation. The self-assessment process is completed using a self-screening questionnaire for each land use to be enrolled.

When this process is completed, the producer submits the workbook to the local NRCS office during the sign-up period and meets with NRCS personnel to go over any additional needed documentation. NRCS will then determine which enrollment category the producer qualifies for and selects the categories to be funded through CSP.

Additional information on CSP, including eligible watersheds, self-assessment workbook and the amendment to the interim final rule, is available at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp.

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