“The Environmental Quality Incentives Program has a backlog of $1.4 billion nationwide,” Taylor Oldroyd, special assistant to the chief of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, told members of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas at their annual meeting at Memphis.

Additionally, he says, the Wetlands Reserve Program has 2,800 pending applications, covering 475,000 acres, and the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program has more than $100 million in pending offers for easements.

“This great demand means we will have to be more strategic in making our conservation investments,” Oldroyd says.

“We will have to use cost-sharing appropriately, as incentives rather than as entitlements. In most cases, we have had to limit cost share rates. Producers and local leaders will also have to look for new partners and new ways to leverage federal dollars.”

The new farm bill represents “the single most significant commitment of resources toward conservation on private lands in the nation’s history,” Oldroyd says. “It provides an increase of more than $17 billion over 10 years.

“If Congress approves the conservation spending proposed by the president in the 2004 budget, we will have the resources needed to take private land conservation to a new level.”

The conservation programs, he says, reflect the Department of Agriculture’s commitment to “all aspects of conservation assistance” and form “an integrated portfolio of instruments that are responsive to American’s growing expectations about agriculture’s role in promoting and protecting environmental quality.”

The USDA’s goal, Oldroyd says, is to help producers maintain profitability while meeting conservation objectives, and help is available through technical assistance, cost sharing, land retirement, easements, and the new Conservation Security Program.

While limitations and restrictions in the past have prevented many producers from getting what they wanted, he says, “That is changing.”

For example, he notes, the new EQIP is expanded and changed in several ways:

• The maximum cost share is raised to $450,000 per individual or entity.

• The “bid down” provision (competitive cost share reduction among program participants) has been eliminated.

• The animal unit cap has been lifted.

• Livestock operations have been made eligible to receive cost share payments for waste storage facilities.

• The cost share limit for limited resource producers and beginning farmers has been raised to 90 percent.

• Payment is allowed to producers in the same year as the contract.

• The minimum length of an EQIP contract has been reduced to one year, after all practices have been implemented.

One of the “most exciting” parts of the new farm bill is the Conservation Security Program, Oldroyd says.

“It will provide payments for farmers and ranchers who have historically practiced good stewardship on their agricultural lands, along with incentives for those who want to do even more. We hope to have rules out soon for this new program.”

The new farm bill, he says, gives farmers the ability “to implement win-win solutions, supported by the federal government, and led by local conservation leaders, landowners, operators, and managers, who are stewards of the land.”

The NRCS is ready, Oldroyd says, to help farmers analyze their situation and help identify solutions, and government agencies are working more closely with all segments of agriculture to apply regulations in a manner that places less of a burden on producers.

“We are highly supportive of market-based approaches to conservation,” he says. “By relying more on the perspective of producers in administering environmental regulations, we can create a regulatory environment that protects the public interest without unduly harming farmers’ profitability.”

The beauty of today’s conservation programs, Oldroyd says, is that they are specifically directed at working lands.

“They are intended to help landowners achieve both desirable environmental goals and economic strength.”

The NRCS approach is based on voluntary conservation, he notes. “Some goals will be compliance-driven, but others will not. Our approach is also based on local leadership. We want to help with things local producers think are important, not just things that meet federal requirements. That’s why the rule for EQUIP provides for local as well as national priorities in the ranking process.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com