The most significant increase in private working lands conservation efforts since 1935 has been made possible via the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The conservation title, which runs through 2007, includes $17 billion — an 80 percent increase from what was in the 1996 farm law.

Should cotton producers add conservation to their list of concerns, though, with prices low and trade issues becoming increasingly important?

National Cotton Council Chairman Kenneth Hood believes conservation should receive a stronger focus among cotton producers for no other reason than the fact that the new farm law provides assistance for producers who have been practicing resource stewardship all along.

Bruce Knight, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said it's important for cotton farmers to not let their conservation ethic diminish due to a weakened cotton economy.

“Fortunately, under the 2002 farm law we have an improved safety net to address farmers' economic needs as well as an improved safety net to provide for conservation needs,” he said.

He said farmers already have a natural stewardship ethic, but there are other reasons why conservation is important to farming's future. Environmental laws are becoming more stringent and water supply shortages are hurting many areas of the country.

Some farmers even could benefit from a secondary source of income from hunting leases on conservation program lands.

One of the most significant changes in the new conservation title is in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides technical and financial assistance for eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water and related natural resource concerns on their lands.

Knight said expanding payment limits per contract under EQIP to $450,000 and with no limit on the number of contracts ensures there is adequate capacity to provide assistance for irrigation and water saving measures and systems that are commensurate with today's commercial-sized agricultural operations.

Other assistance can be provided for: 1) soil erosion technical assistance; 2) pest management; and 3) wildlife habitat enhancement.

All farmers will be able to apply for EQIP regardless of where they are located, but NRCS wants decisions and practices under EQIP to be based on locally led priorities of each conservation community, whether for wind erosion control in West Texas or air quality in California.

“No longer will you have farmers in a given state without access to the full range of conservation programs because they happen to be outside a Geographic Priority Area,” Knight said.

“Regardless of physical locations, farmers will be able to go in, work with their NRCS representative and their conservation districts to put together the best possible conservation plan, one that meets the needs of the farmer, landowner and the area in general.”

Since 1996, about $62.5 million has been spent on the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). The new title provides a greater than 10-fold increase for WHIP, which provides for such measures as vegetation planting, planting food plots and constructing wildlife watering facilities.

Some of these measures overlap with EQIP practices — a plus for getting a project completed.

The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) also could prove valuable to farmers. Those who have unproductive wet areas can get paid for easements for part or all of the cost of restoring historic wetlands and providing high quality waterfowl habitat under WRP and CRP.

“The Wetlands Reserve Program, which is used a great deal along the Mississippi River, has provided important nesting and resting habitat for many of the migratory waterfowl,” Knight said. “And the buffer strip initiative utilizing CRP in a targeted manner is helping a great deal with improving quail habitat in the Southeast.”

A ground-breaking program is the Conservation Security Program (CSP) for which rules will not be finalized until early 2003. The CSP is aimed at maintaining existing and encouraging new stewardship practices on cropland, pastureland, rangeland and incidental forestland.

The three-tiered program will provide cost-share and bonus payments to farmers who have historically practiced good stewardship on their working land. CSP also will provide incentives to growers who want to increase their conservation practices.

“Our challenge is to design that program so that it works for all of agriculture and all across the nation,” Knight said.

That includes small and large farmers.

John Edwards and his son grow 3,200 acres of cotton in Leachville, Ark., where he employs a range of conservation practices from planting winter cover crops to reduce wind erosion to using surge valves when irrigating with pipe.

Edwards hopes there will be money available for funding these and other practices ranging from land leveling/re-leveling to underground pipe installation. The latter, he says, is a much more energy efficient water delivery method and easier on the environment as farmers don't have to be concerned with disposing of great amounts of “poly” pipe.

“Very little (conservation) money has been going to row crops in our area,” said Edwards, whose family was named Arkansas Farm Family of the Year in 2000 by the Arkansas Press Association in part because of the farm stewardship on their operation in the northeast part of the state. “I hope more money will be available and we can qualify for some of these practices.”

Then there's Max Carter, “the father of no-till” in Georgia as he is known. Carter, who grows about 300 acres of cotton in Douglas, Ga., has been engaged in conservation tillage for 27 years, and has given numerous presentations on the subject.

Like Edwards, he believes farmers should get conservation program funding for planting cover crops and maybe even carbon sequestration — a potential environmental benefit of conservation tillage systems that could slow global warming.

Researchers also are looking at using sequestered carbon as a carrier for nitrogen and as a soil amendment, preventing harmful runoff of farm chemicals.

Bo Bannister, Carter's district conservationist in south central Georgia, said there has been significant adoption of no-till and reduced till systems by cotton growers in his district and interest is growing. He believes the CSP program will accelerate farmers' adoption, a step he believes is necessary as agriculture moves to “sustainable” mode.

“If we can get growers into some of this, we think its natural they will stay there,” Bannister said.

Courtland, Ala., cotton producer Larkin Martin believes firmly in being a good steward of the land. She urges farmers to “get up to speed” on the changes to existing conservation programs and pay attention to the CSP regulations being developed.

“Conservation likely will gain more priority in the years ahead,” said Martin, who is a member of the Cotton Council's Conservation Working Group. “There has been a great deal of emphasis outside of agriculture on conservation and pushing more dollars into these kind of titles and less into traditional row crop commodity payments.”

Hood, who also is a member of the working group, saus he is delighted that the CSP is “taking into account the practices that many farmers already are doing.” He's optimistic that his work with variable rate technology will qualify because it reduces the overall amount of pesticides, fertilizer and other crop inputs applied on the land.

He also likes the fact that he will be able to develop and submit a conservation plan when “he has the time and can afford to do it.”

Hood, who has been engaged in land forming practices for erosion control and water quality preservation on his Gunnison, Miss., farm for many years, said he is looking forward to getting help on maintenance of such structures as overfall pipe and planting of additional filter strips to help improve the quality of runoff water from his farm.

He sees that as a must in order for his farm not to be labeled as a non-point pollution source and to meet EPA's total maximum daily load requirements for water runoff.

Ben Noble, Cotton Council senior government relations representative in Washington, said the Council's working group will continue dialogue with NRCS throughout the Title II implementation process. The focus will be on the changes that were made and how they can benefit U.S. cotton producers.

“We already have met with NRCS officials and talked about the CSP implementation,” Noble said. “We discussed such specifics as defining a farm and about how the farmers who already are doing environmentally beneficial projects can be rewarded.”

More information on the new conservation title, including a section-by-section description, fact sheets on the various conservation programs and a comparison to the 1996 farm law's conservation title, can be found on the web sites listed below.

At the last site (www.nrcs.usda.gov) also can be found a new electronic version of the NRCS Field Office Technical Guides (FOTG). The guides previously were only available in handbooks. For more information, go to: http://www.usda.gov/farmbill/conservation_fb.html> http://www.usda.gov/farmbill/conservation_fb.htmlwww.ers.usda.gov/Features/farmbill/titles/titleIIconservation.htmwww.nrcs.usda.gov/about/legislative/pdf/SectionbySection5-7.pdf


T. Cotton Nelson is manager, public relations, for the National Cotton Council of America, which is based in Memphis, Tenn. E-mail: cnelson@cotton.org.