April 18 is shaping up to be a red-letter day for many farmers. For openers, it’s the new expiration date of the current farm bill. It’s also the date eligible farmers can begin sign-up for a new round of Conservation Security Program enrollments.

USDA announced farmers could begin sign-up for CSP contracts in 51 watersheds April 18. The sign-up, which will run through May 16, will be available to about 64,000 potentially eligible farms and ranches covering 23.7 million acres.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the author of the Conservation Security Program and chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said the announcement broke a “log-jam” that had prevented new enrollments in the CSP since the end of the 2006 fiscal year.

“We need CSP now more than ever as farmers step up crop production to meet increasing demand for food, feed and fuel,” said Harkin. “Producers must have access to this program, and one of my top priorities has been to ensure that this program gets the money it needs.”

Although Harkin forced a House-Senate conference committee to include the CSP in the 2002 farm bill, he has been stymied by a lack of funding almost since the ink dried on the current law. The program was suspended for the 2007 fiscal year after appropriations ran out.

He remedied that problem by securing funding for this new enrollment in an appropriations bill that Congress passed last June. He said he had been working with USDA since that time to release the funding.

“Since the first sign-up in 2004, CSP has offered payments for enhancing natural resources, rewarding those farmers and ranchers who are model conservationists, and providing incentives for other producers to achieve those same high standards of conservation in agriculture,” said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.

CSP is a voluntary conservation program that was designed to provide three levels of payments to farmers, depending on the amount of conservation performed on their farms. USDA decided to target the funds to specific watersheds because of the limited funding provided by Congress for the program.

Payments can include: 1) an annual stewardship component for the base level of conservation treatment, 2) an annual component for maintenance of existing conservation practices, and 3) an enhancement component for exceptional conservation effort. Enhancement activities could include limited pesticide applications, renewable energy generation, and widening riparian forest buffers for restoring critical stream habitat.

To apply for CSP, NRCS will ask potential participants to complete a CSP self-assessment workbook-available on the Web or from local NRCS offices-to find out if their operation meets the requirements of the program and qualifies 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 CSP workbook to the local NRCS office during the sign-up period and meets with NRCS personnel to go over any additional needed documentation.

The March 19 announcement brings the number of watersheds enrolled to 331 across the nation, covering 247.7 million acres that have been eligible for the program. CSP is offered on a rotational basis in as many watersheds as funding allows. (Additional information on CSP, including eligible watersheds and a CSP self-assessment workbook is available at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp.)

Under the new farm bill currently moving through Congress, CSP would enroll over 13 million new acres each year, more than doubling enrollment in the program and building on its successes each year.

“This program was created in the 2002 farm bill and, due to producer demand, will grow under the new farm bill currently moving through Congress,” said Harkin. “I am determined to ensure that.” (Congress recently passed and President Bush signed a bill extending the expiration date of the current farm law from March 15 to April 18.)

Funding for conservation programs and in particular the Conservation Security Program has been cut by appropriators in past years to fund emergency disaster programs. More than $4 billion has been cut from the Conservation Security Program since it was first authorized in 2002, forcing the program to be implemented on a watershed-by-watershed rather than a nationwide basis.

An additional $5 billion in the Conservation Title could fully fund the Conservation Security Program in the next farm bill, allowing eligible farmers nationwide to enroll in the program on a continuous basis and 13 million new acres to be added each year.

“The conservation title programs should not be used as an offset for a permanent disaster program when they encourage the very farming practices that can help shield producers from weather-related risks and adjust to longer term climate changes,” said Martha Noble, senior policy analyst with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

“With the current ethanol boom threatening to undo many of the past conservation efforts of farmers and ranchers, it is more important now than ever that we have a strong conservation title in the next farm bill.”

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