USDA officials were scurrying around near the end of August, signing “ceremonial” contracts with farmers and ranchers selected to participate in the new Conservation Security Program.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jim Moseley was in Minnesota to sign the first CSP contract with James and Peggy Pahl at their farm in the Blue Earth Watershed while Undersecretary Mark Rey went to Pennsylvania and Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Bruce Knight journeyed to Wisconsin and Iowa.

The Pahls were among 2,200 farmers and ranchers in 18 watersheds who applied for the CSP in July. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said USDA accepted all of the eligible applications for the program.

The enrollments will impact nearly 1.9 million acres, which sounds impressive. But that figure is a far cry from expectations when President Bush signed the 2002 farm bill that created the CSP.

One of the few remaining features of the original program is the three-tier concept for making payments. Growers will receive $20,000, $35,000 or $45,000 annually, depending on the amount of conservation practices to be performed on their farms. Tier I contracts will last five years and Tier II and III five to 10 years.

“The interest of farmers and the hard work of USDA employees in getting the enrollment accomplished in a very short time frame should be applauded,” said the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Ferd Hoefner. “But less than 1 percent of farmers were given the opportunity to participate in 2004, and thousands are still waiting for a chance to enroll.”

Hoefner was referring to USDA’s decision to limit the program to the 18 watersheds in 22 states although the farm bill intended it to be a national program that would encourage producers in every state to improve the conservation practices on their farms.

Veneman said USDA expects to use all of the $41 million Congress budgeted for the program for fiscal year 2004. (When Congress passed the 2002 farm bill the Congressional Budget Office estimated the Conservation Security Program’s initial outlays at $2 billion.)

Hoefner says changing the Conservation Security Program from a full-blown conservation enhancement effort to what amounts to a pilot program has left a number of farmers frustrated. Those growers say the eligibility test for CSP should be conservation performance not where a grower happens to live.

Some farmers also are concerned with the insertion of a per acre payment cap not found in the law that “severely limits the program’s benefit to small and medium sized farms, tilting those to larger farms in general and those with high rental rates in particular.”

With U.S. farm programs under attack in the World Trade Organization, farm groups are looking at programs like the CSP, which falls under the “green box” category of payments, to help maintain stability in the farm sector.

If Congress’ track record for funding programs like the CSP continues, those groups may be in for tough sledding as preparations begin for a new farm bill.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com