Most farmers want to think of the farm bill as a multi-year contract they can rely on to make long-term management and financial plans. That's not necessarily the case, however, says Hunt Shipman, chief of staff for the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“We are seeing some things included in the farm bill, such as payment limits, come back up for debate and other programs being modified,” he says.

One case in point is the Conservation Security Program. The House of Representatives has recently reported out its version of the upcoming agriculture appropriations bill, and it virtually zeroes out the farm bill-authorized program for next year. The budget proposal also reduces funding for other conservation programs.

Expected to go before the full House in mid-July, the House agriculture appropriations bill reduces budget allocations by $843 million, slashing many programs authorized by the 2002 farm bill. The newly created Conservation Security Program was zeroed out, Wetland Reserve Program funding was reduced by $70 million, and funding for the EQIP program was reduced by about $30 million.

The savings achieved by eliminating the Conservation Security Program from the House agriculture appropriations bill was about $53 million, Shipman says. “That $53 million has now been spent in the House version of its appropriations bill. If program funding is restored, $53 million has to come from something that has already been funded. Does it come from the WIC program? Does it come from the NRCS conservation operations account? Does it come from ag research programs? Those are the difficult kinds of decisions being faced in today's budget reality.”

The schedule for Senate appropriations development is still unclear, but Beltway insiders anticipate a markup during July by both the subcommittee and full committee, with floor action possible sometime before the August recess.

Senators are currently faced with approximately $900 million less to spend on the agriculture appropriations bills than they had one year ago, according to Shipman. “That money has to be found somewhere just to keep the same programs going that we had last year, without the added expenses associated with pay costs for USDA employees, inflation costs, and funding needs for new programs that were authorized in the farm bill.”

If the Conservation Security Program stays zeroed out for 2004, what are the chances it will re-emerge in 2005, or even 2006? According to Shipman, the longer the program lies dormant, the less savings the Congressional Budget Office will allocate to a committee or a congressman who wants to offer an amendment to zero it out. That means, at some point if there is no longer any savings benefit allowed by the budget gurus in Washington, D.C., there also won't be the incentive there to zero out the program.”

It all goes back to the Congressional Budget Office's initial budget scoring for the Conservation Security Program, which was substantially lower than what many program experts anticipated.

Shipman says, “I don't think they understood the program very well or realized the ability of the Conservation Security Program to reach into new areas of agriculture and address so many different kinds of conservation issues. It's not just a row crop program. It's an entitlement program that a lot of people, including fruit and vegetable producers and livestock producers, can take advantage of. If you meet the criteria and implement the practices that are prescribed in the law, you get the money.”

That brought with it a realization that a larger amount of money needed to be budgeted. And so, as time went on, the Congressional Budget Office realized the program's budget implications, and CBO raised its estimate of how much money it would cost to put the Conservation Security Program on the ground.

Shipman says, “Time will tell about the prospects for the Conservation Security Program. It doesn't generate a lot of budget savings, so it is still possible we may be able to find additional money to offset these savings.”

On the other hand, he says, “It's going to be a tough year to try and balance all of these competing draws on the dollars. A lot of times, unfortunately, we don't have the money to do the things that are desperately needed to help particular programs that we find in agriculture. We have a very careful balance in Washington, D.C., among the production agriculture community, the nutrition community, and the conservation community. Reductions in any one of these programs upsets that balance.

“When Congress looked earlier this year at how it would finance ad hoc disaster assistance, the decision was made to either take away a program that hadn't been started and that no one was receiving payments or benefits under or to take away something that is active. That's why the decision was made to reduce CSP funding at that time.” Shipman adds, “Everything that Congress puts into law has to be implemented, and the opportunity for interpretation is always there. It's sometimes difficult to divine the intent of Congress.”


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com