CHARLESTON, S.C. — Now that the USDA is well along with getting checks out to farmers for payments authorized in the 2002 farm bill, "our focus has shifted to the remaining parts of the legislation," a department official says.

"There are still a few regulations left to implement with respect to the commodity programs, and one of the biggest tasks remaining is the conservation title," Hunt Shipman, deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, said at the annual meeting of the Southern Crop Protection Association at Charleston.

"The bill provided for an 80 percent increase in conservation spending, with 85 percent of those funds targeted to working lands. Land retirement programs that we had in the past, the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, will continue with moderate funding increases.

"One of the most exciting programs for us and one of the most challenging is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which makes $4.6 billion available to producers over the life of the bill. This is a tremendous opportunity, we think, to address many of the environmental problems that exist on working lands and still keep those lands in production."

Perhaps the "biggest question mark," Shipman said, is the Conservation Security Program, "which was written with different tiers and different payments for different activities. We're still some time away from issuing proposals for implementing this program, but I encourage everyone to watch it closely and to be an active participant in its development."

Still to be resolved in the appropriations process, he said, is whether it will be a pilot program or whether it will also continue in development as a nationwide program.

Just a few days previous to the conference, Shipman said, the department held a Third Party Technical Service Providers Summit, "which gave us an opportunity to obtain input on the use of such providers. It was one of the most elaborate attempts we've ever made to seek public input." A final regulation is expected to become effective next spring.

Eight other titles in the farm bill, ranging from nutrition and research to rural development — and for the first time, an energy title — remain to be implemented in coming months, Shipman said.

"To this point, I think we've done as good a job as could be done in trying to get programs developed in a timely basis for what needed to happen for production agriculture this year. Congress spent a year and a half developing the bill, and after it was passed it was a real challenge for us to implement it.

"Keep in mind, this was signed by the president May 13 and was applicable to 2002 crops, so we didn't have a lot of time to anticipate and plan. I feel we've done an excellent job — particularly in the Farm Service Agency offices — in getting the parts of the bill applicable to 2002 crops up and running in a timely fashion."

Between Oct. 1 and the end of the year, he noted, some $13 billion is being injected into the farm economy from new and existing programs, which "represents a tremendous amount of money."

"Checks are being written; signups are under way. The legislation is very specific on how the money is to be parceled out over the calendar year. Previously, the USDA wrote checks only a couple of times a year; now, our check writing is almost constant."

Shipman said the USDA is "basically done with the commodity programs" and is concentrating on remaining parts of the farm bill.

"One of the most substantial for Southern agriculture is a major overhaul of the peanut program, which we're well on our way to getting implemented. We feel it's a step in the right direction, but we'll have to see how producers react to it."

The Bush administration's trade agenda will continue to get top priority, Shipman said.

"Recent estimates of global grain stocks are forecasting the lowest stocks-to-use ratios in recent memory, a result of drought and other adverse weather in the U.S., Australia, and Europe — something we haven't seen in all three areas in a number of years. This has led to higher grain prices.

"But, we know that cycles like this don't last forever, and we will continue to pursue the president's aggressive, three-pronged trade agenda: global, regional, and bilateral."

On the global front, he said, "We have an aggressive agricultural proposal before the World Trade Organization to reduce trade-distorting domestic supports, to eliminate export subsidies, and to increase market access for agricultural products."

Regionally, active discussions are under way on agreements such as the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, and others. Bilaterally, a number of agreements were completed last year and "many more" are in discussion.

"This three-pronged approach creates an atmosphere that will allow for increased liberalization of trade in agricultural products," Shipman said.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.