The Conservation Security Program (CSP) was included in the 2002 farm bill, which was signed into law by President Bush earlier this year. It was to allocate $2 billion, most of it in incentive payments, to encourage conservation practices on cropland and grazing lands and forest lands. CSP was intended to be a nationwide program, open to any farmer large or small who wanted to make environmental improvements on his or her farm.

Now the agriculture appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives wants to water down the CSP and turn it into a pilot program, limited to only a few farms in one state, Iowa. This would be a major setback to growers and to the environment.

The reasons to adopt CSP are as sound today as they were in May when both houses of Congress agreed it should be part of the new farm bill. CSP is a major recognition that working farmlands are a critical factor in the environmental and ecological equation. Other farm programs, such as Conservation Reserve, take sensitive land out of production, but this new program addresses conservation on the millions of acres that remain in production.

Farmers have long recognized that the practices they employ on their land can have either a positive or a negative impact on the environment. The way we handle waste and manage soil erosion can have a major effect on community watersheds. For many years, soil and water conservation districts and the Natural Resource Conservation Service have worked with growers to develop and implement techniques that minimize the impact of producing food and fiber.

Many growers have implemented nutrient and pest management plans. Others have planted buffer strips along streams or established trees to firm up riverbanks. Still others are planting winter cover crops or establishing grass waterways. Every year, thousands of new acres are converted to direct seeding, which can reduce soil loss by 90 percent or more and provide food and habitat for wildlife.

Farmers have done this on their own, even though it has meant a major commitment of time to learn new practices, money to purchase new equipment and land diverted from productive use. CSP will ensure that growers who have made the commitment will stay the course and it will provide incentives for other farms to incorporate similar improvements.

CSP also provides an avenue for the non-farming community to support the environmental improvements that are sought by our society as a whole — cleaner water, less erosion of topsoil, better environment for wildlife. When car manufacturers were told to improve gas mileage and reduce emissions, they were able to pass on their costs. When power plants were told to reduce their air emissions, those costs were included on utility bills. Farm field runoff is in the spotlight now, but farmers have no way to pass on their costs, a reality that is reflected in the CSP cost-sharing incentives.

Erosion and runoff are serious environmental issues. Sedimentation impairs more miles of stream than any other water pollutant in the United States. It chokes out aquatic life, spoils streams for recreation and poses difficult problems for water treatment facilities. When soil particles wash off fields, they can carry manure, pesticides and fertilizer with them.

In recent years, agriculture has made major improvements in reducing topsoil loss. CSP is a way to expand that improvement. CSP is a benefit for growers, it is a benefit for the environment, and it benefits society as a whole. It is a program that will work if Congress will give it a chance.

Read Smith, a wheat and livestock producer from Washington state, is president of the National Association of Conservation Districts.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com