USDA officials announced they are streamlining the procedures its employees will follow in signing farmers up for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

The new rules allow USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the EQIP program, and the Farm Service Agency, which oversees the CRP, to review applications for either program without the formal approval of the other agency.

The change is expected to save several weeks in moving paperwork from one office to another — time that can be better spent in implementing the expanded conservation provisions of the 2002 farm bill, according to USDA officials.

“The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 represents an unprecedented investment in conservation on America's private lands,” said NRCS Chief Bruce Knight. “The farm bill gives us a chance to do a lot of good for a lot of agricultural landowners and for the country as a whole.

“But taking $13 billion and putting it to work on the land is still a major challenge. The bill covers six years, but we want to get a running start on it this year.”

Knight and FSA administrator Jim Little said they believe the changes will “go a long way toward making the programs work better,” as Little noted in a press briefing conducted by USDA.

“We know that implementing the farm bill is going to be a tremendous workload on our county office and state office employees,” said Little, adding that USDA has begun hiring the additional 1,000 staff members approved by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman in June.

“We're getting information about the new programs to the counties and to our customers as quickly as possible to help them make decisions. There are going to be some serious decisions that our farmers will have to make later this summer.”

Knight said USDA has not calculated the total timesavings in changing the administrative procedures for the CRP and EQIP sign-ups but believes it will be substantial.

In the past, he said, NRCS staff members would be required to take an EQIP contract or FSA personnel a CRP contract down the hall or across the street — depending on whether they were co-located — to the other agency to get their concurrence before they could proceed with approval of the contract.

“The contract might have to be returned or sent back to the other office one or two times,” he said. “Add to that some of the committee work and you may end up grinding up several weeks.

“By the fact that we are acknowledging that we've got offices that must work closely together, there's not going to be a need for that formalized structured process, and that should shave quite a bit of time off of those approval processes.”

One of the first orders of business for USDA will be figuring out how to enroll more land in the CRP and the Wetlands Reserve Program. The 2002 act increases the acreage that can be enrolled in CRP from 36.4 million to 39.2 million acres and in the WRP from 975,000 acres to 2.275 million.

The new law also increases the funding for EQIP program from $1.3 billion to $6.1 billion over the next six years.

NRSC officials also must begin developing the rules and regulations for the new Conservation Security Program, which is aimed at financially recognizing ongoing stewardship efforts and helping producers perform other environmentally enhancing projects on their land.

USDA officials attending the press briefing were asked where they thought the additional acres in the CRP would come from, given that much of the current enrollment originated from the central and northern Plains.

In the past, USDA attempted to maximize the benefits per dollar spent on rental rates, said Keith Collins, USDA's chief economist.

“When you use that approach it puts a very high weight on the cost, and if you're in an area of the country where rental rates are very low, then those areas of the country showed up at the top of the list for enrollment in the CRP,” he said. “Of course, that often was the northern plains states.”

Over the years, USDA has changed the way it constructed the environmental benefits index to change the weighting on the different environmental factors and on cost. “It's opened up the program to more land from other regions,” Collins noted. “That will be part of the analysis that we'll go through in looking at if we do have another general sign-up for the CRP.”

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