For months, farm groups have been gearing up for a fight over the more contentious sections of the new farm bill. Direct payments, counter-cyclical programs, payment limits all were expected to challenge.

But the Conservation Security Program? Who would have thought the CSP could become a hurdle so big that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin would say that without it “there won’t be a bill?”

The Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2007 the House passed near the end of July contains the CSP. But the bill bars USDA from enrolling farmers in any new CSP contracts until 2012 and transfers the funding to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The CSP, which rewards conservation practices on working lands, has been a stepchild ever since Harkin forced a House-Senate conference committee to include it in the 2002 farm bill.

USDA took nearly two years to write the rules for the program. What the department finally unveiled was essentially a pilot program, covering only a handful of carefully selected watersheds.

More watersheds were added in subsequent years, but House leaders periodically transferred money from the CSP to fund disaster programs. Last spring, Harkin added $115 million to a supplemental appropriations bill so USDA could complete the payments for this year’s contracts and hold new sign-ups.

Harkin has been saying the chairman’s “mark” he will offer in mid-September would restore funds for the CSP in 2008-2012. But he appeared to be drawing a line in the sand during comments at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

“Farmers like CSP, they grasp it and they see the vision of it,” he said. “Yet previous spending bills shortchanged the program and prevented it from reaching its full potential.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., House ag committee chairman, has said the CSP suffers from a lack of focus and that the program’s funding could be better spent “solving real environmental problems” with EQIP.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has said he favors expansion of the CSP and not just the restoration of the funding for the 2008-2012 fiscal years. If so, that would be the first time USDA has given more than passing support for the program.

Harkin said he didn’t understand why Peterson “stiffed us” on the Conservation Security Program, adding that reinstating the funding for the CSP is not negotiable.

Harkin’s apparent unwillingness to compromise could be problematic for farm groups already worried about hanging on to what they won in the House bill in the Senate. For openers, he is slated to chair the conference committee that will reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, served as chairman of the conference committee for the 2002 farm bill so the chairmanship will rotate to the chairman of the Senate ag committee for the 2007 bill.

Given Harkin’s views on such issues as payment limits, that could make for an interesting conference.

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