A new, incentive-based payment program authorized by the 2002 farm bill, the Conservation Security Program pays producers for maintaining conservation practices and installing additional conservation measures on working farm land. USDA initially said it would have the CSP in place in early 2003.

USDA officials are currently developing the rules for the new conservation program, according to Ben Noble, vice president of government affairs for the USA Rice Federation. “They have solicited input on the Conservation Security Program, and are trying to meet the goals of Congress, but Congress left a lot to the administration on this task.”

If NRCS sets it up properly, he says, the Conservation Security Program “could be a real benefit to producers and to the environment. However, they could also limit the program to the point where it is not a truly viable option to producers, and does not provide a real environmental benefit.

“USDA’s challenge is to develop a program that is attractive to all producers, while also meeting required funding levels. That’s a pretty big challenge because they will need to come up with some type of restrictive measures to fit it into the budget cap for the program.”

As proposed, the Conservation Security Program has three funding levels based on the number of resource concerns addressed, and whether conservation measures are practiced on all or part of a farm. The program’s first tier pays producers up to $20,000 over five years; tier two pays up to $35,000 over five to 10 years; and tier three pays a maximum of $45,000 over the life of a five- to 10-year contract.

Resource concerns include water quality and quantity, soil erosion and quality, air quality, plant suitability and management, and animal habitat management.

In a show of united concern, 10 commodity groups used the first anniversary of the 2002 farm bill’s signing into law to urge government action on the program.

“The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 represented a historic commitment to conservation on working lands through both increased funding and important new programs, including the innovative Conservation Security Program,” says the May 13 letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

“We want to express our strong support for the full implementation of the Conservation Security Program. The legislation created an open, national CSP without an arbitrary limitation, which for the first time would allow all farmers who meet conservation standards to participate. It also provided a new direction in conservation by rewarding good stewards of the land for continuing and maintaining conservation practices.”

The letter was sent from the National Corn Growers Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Grain Sorghum Producers, the National Farmers Union, the National Cotton Council, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, the USA Rice Federation, and the U.S. Rice Producers Association.

“We haven’t yet received a response from Secretary Veneman to our letter,” says Noble. “We have met with Bruce Knight, the chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He assures us that NRCS is working hard to deliver a number of conservation programs and will get the new CSP rules out to producers as soon as possible.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com