Conservation programs received a lot of attention from panelists during a recent farm bill hearing in Lubbock, Texas.

Speakers urged members of the House Agriculture Committee to continue funding popular conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). They also implored committee members to make certain final rules are completed soon for the Conservation Security Program (CSP). They also suggested that payment limitations under CSP are too restrictive and, as administered by the USDA, do not represent the intent of Congress.

Several speakers expressed concern for the large number of Conservation Reserve Program contracts set to expire in the next two years.

“We have about 3.3 million acres (in the) Conservation Reserve Program in Texas,” said Dee Vaughan, a corn producer from Dumas. More than 2.7 million of those acres have contracts due to expire by September, 2014. “The bulk of these acres expire by the end of fiscal year 2012,” Vaughan said.

Changes in eligibility requirements and funding mean most of those expiring contracts will not be eligible for renewal. “Much of this land should remain in CRP because it is subject to wind erosion,” Vaughan said. “This land will be put back into production based on recent experience with contracts that have expired.”

Vaughan said bringing CRP land back into production also puts added pressure on the dwindling Ogallala aquifer.

“This land has established program base acres, so it will be re-enrolled in the farm program.”

Vaughan recommends that eligibility rules be modified to allow more expiring CRP acreage to stay in the program.

The Texas Wheat Producers Association (TWPA) also encourages changes to permit CRP acres to stay idle. “We encourage the committee to work closely with the USDA, FSA, and NRCS with regards to the potential impacts of producer decisions as the October deadline approaches and future CRP acres expire,” said David Cleavinger, spokesperson for TWPA.

Brad Heffington, a Lamb County, Texas, cotton farmer, said no program has done more than the CRP “to improve the quality of life in this area or protect our precious soil resources like the CRP.”

He said recent budget cuts threaten to undermine the good that the CRP has done. “We are on the verge of releasing millions of acres of highly erodible land that will most likely go back into crop production.”

Heffington said much of the Texas Plains was part of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and CRP participation has helped prevent a similar occurrence over the past decade during a period with multi-year droughts.

“The 2012 farm bill needs to provide a clear direction for the CRP and reiterate the importance of keeping those fragile, erosive lands of the Great Plains under permanent cover,” he said.

L.G. Raun, an El Campo, Texas, rice farmer, said restrictions on the Conservation Security Program (CSP) limit the program’s effectiveness and appeal. He said restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to apply or contract for CSP is one sticking point.

“Earlier this year, only one entity per contract was allowed, regardless of whether an operator was signed up at the Farm Service Agency as a multi-entity operation. Only those listed on the FSA’s documents as farm operators were eligible to apply and if deemed eligible enter into a CSP contract.”

He said rules also require that to contract an individual must “have documented control of the land for the proposed contract term unless an exception is made by NRCS.” He said a CSP applicant may not always have a five-year lease on every acre he or she farms.

Raun said landowner-tenant relationships include many different arrangements so requiring a lease of 5 years or longer “is unrealistic in most circumstances.”

He also said the payment limitation or $40,000 per year and a $200,000 contract limit discourages participation. Those limits, he said, were not imposed by the 2008 farm bill.

Raun said release of final CSP rules is long overdue since those rules are essential for farmer and rancher planning and implementation. “We are hopeful that the Administration will quickly complete and release the CSP final rule.”

Vaughan said the USDA’s “unilateral decision not to include commercial-size farming operations dramatically limits the environmental and conservation improvements that are possible with the program. If the CSP cannot be improved to a point that it can deliver meaningful benefits to commercial-size farming and ranching operations, we believe these funds would be better used to enhance successful USDA conservation programs such as CRP and EQIP that are promoting real environmental benefits for both producers and taxpayers.”

Raun said producers’ conservation efforts benefit more than the farm community. “Rice producers contribute to beneficial conservation efforts through a number of initiatives, including EQIP, CSP, and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), among others,” he said.

“Through our participation, (we) are maintaining and enhancing the natural resources of not just our family farms but that of our communities, states and nations as well. There is a substantial benefit accruing to the general public as a result of the conservation efforts we undertake on the farm, including cleaner air and water, wildlife habitat, reduced soil erosion, and wetlands protection. Accordingly, we believe these highly successful, voluntary conservation cost-share programs are properly a shared responsibility.”

Speakers also encouraged the committee to fund conservation programs adequately but that conservation payments should not displace commodity title funds as a safety net. They also said conservation programs should be administered at the local level.

email: rsmith@farmpress.com