“We believe it will be setting the stage for conservation programs in the next farm bill, Carol Jett, associate deputy chief for programs, National Resources Conservation Service, told members of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas at their annual meeting at Memphis.

“We’re working very hard to get this rule out,” she said, but some “tweaking was needed for language in the appropriations bill. “We hope to have it done very soon.”

The program, Jett says, represents “a new day in conservation – no other program rewards farmers for their ongoing levels of environmental stewardship.”

The CSP, she says, will recognize producers who provide environmental benefits desired by society, such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat, etc.

“We’ve been touring conservation farms for the past two years, documenting what they’re doing to benefit America, and there will be payments for this historic stewardship, with an opportunity for enhancement payments for additional activities.”

Unfortunately, Jett noted, a funding cap was put on the program last year, causing something of a dilemma: “How do you take a program with a potential 1.8 million eligible farmers and ranchers, when you’ve got a funding cap?” It’s expected that $41.4 million will be available in 2004, enough for only 150 to 300 contracts nationwide.

But once fully funded, she says, it will be “an incredibly important program” for rewarding stewardship.

Considered will be management of various practices for soil quality, water quality, wildlife habitat, and other factors. “Basically, we’ll take a ‘snapshot’ of your farm that will be your conservation benchmark – where you are today.”

It is a working lands conservation program, Jett says. Persons applying must have an active interest in the operation and have control of the land for the life of the contract.

An estimated 900 million acres are eligible for CSP, including 350 million cropland and 350 million pasture, with the balance in rangeland or forestry. Land in the conservation or wetlands reserve programs won’t be eligible.

Other programs open to farmers, Jett noted, are EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), WRP (Wetlands Reserve Program), WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program), and FRPP (Farm and Ranchland Protection Program.

EQIP is the “new big down in town,” she says, aimed at promoting agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals, offering technical and financial assistance for a broad range of conservation practices.

2004 EQIP funding is pegged at $1 billion, up from $200 million annually under the previous farm bill, with an extra $60 million for ground/surface water conservation.

The two programs got $1.026 billion in fiscal 2003, Jett said, “and Arkansas got a good chunk – a bit over $11 million.” But there were $76 million in requests, “which shows it’s an extremely popular program in your state.”

In Arkansas, the top priority last year was protecting groundwater, with additional emphasis on improving irrigation efficiency and diverting surface water to storage.

The Wetlands Reserve Program was also “extremely popular” in Arkansas, Jett says. The state was second in the nation in the number of acres enrolled, with Louisiana the leader. Arkansas got $25 million through the program last year.

WHIP, “a very small program” offering cost-share practices for wildlife habitat, brought $730,000 into Arkansas last year.

“We want to help you in every way we possibly can to deal with the kind of regulatory environment we’re going into,” Jett said. “One of the charges we were given by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman when we began implementation of the new farm bill was to use conservation programs, wherever possible, to mitigate regulations and to try and avoid any additional regulations.”

She said every attempt will be made to achieve flexibility in programs, with as much management as possible at the local level.

“Our position is that local people, who know their area best, are the ones who should help make the decisions about what goes on there – not those in Washington.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com