Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that sign-up will begin Feb. 13 for the 2006 Conservation Security Program. But some producers who were counting on participating in the watershed-based CSP this year are likely to be disappointed.

Johanns said the initial selection of the 110 watersheds USDA announced last summer was based on President Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget request. But Congress provided funding for only 60 watersheds, the secretary said.

A list of the watersheds that survived the cuts, so to speak, can be found at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/. USDA said the remaining 60 watersheds are spread evenly across all 50 states, the Caribbean and Guam. Only producers who do not have an existing CSP control will be allowed to enroll.

That the funding was released at all almost took another act of Congress.

Three days before Johanns announced the sign-up on Jan. 31, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee wrote the secretary, demanding that he conduct the 2006 sign-up “within the next few weeks.

“The Natural Resource Conservation Service has finalized plans for 2006 and is ready to begin enrollment but is being prohibited by the Office of Management and Budget from doing so,” said the letter signed by Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

“Many farmers and ranchers use the winter months to make plans for their farming and conservation needs,” they said. “We believe the success of many conservation programs could be improved by scheduling sign-up periods to coincide at the same time.”

While Johanns said the limitation placed on CSP funding in fiscal 2006 agricultural appropriations bill forced the reduction, one group said that explanation was incomplete at best.

“Without the limitation on funding, CSP would have been eligible for at least $331 million for 2006 according to the Congressional Budget Office,” said the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Ferd Hoefner. “However, President Bush proposed slashing this amount by $57 million, to $274 million, in his budget proposal last February.”

Hoefner said the president’s budget proposal was the basis for the selection and announcement of the 110 watersheds by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner last summer. But Congress settled on a $259 million limitation, compromising between the House-passed $245 million cap and the Senate-passed full funding at $331 million.

The budget proposal, upon which the 110 watersheds were announced by USDA, represented an increase in CSP funding over fiscal 2005 of $72 million. The final appropriations bill limited the increase to $57 million, but the ratio of the difference between those sums should have resulted in a final watershed number of about 87, not 60, according to Hoefner.

“It appears the cost of getting the announcement made without further delay was a deeper cut in the number of watersheds participating than the funding levels require,” he noted. “While some of the difference might be accounted for by additional conservation activities and thus higher payments for farmers already enrolled in the CSP, the cut in total watersheds is deeper still.”

Hoefner said many farmers in the 110 watersheds announced last summer have been busy preparing their conservation plans and records with the expectation they would have their chance to enroll. “For farmers and ranchers in 50 watersheds those plans are now unfortunately dashed.”

Under USDA’s interpretation of the 2002 farm bill, most of a farmer’s agricultural operation must fall within the boundaries of a selected watershed. Applicants must also meet the minimum requirements of the CSP contained in the amendment to the Interim Final Rule published in the Federal Register, March 25, 2005.

USDA’s announcement said the applications will be placed in enrollment categories, which will be funded in alphabetical order until funds are exhausted. The CSP amendment to the Interim Final Rule is available for viewing at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/.

Producers will begin the application process by filling out a self-assessment to determine if they meet the basic qualifications for CSP, USDA said. Self-assessment workbooks are available in hard copy at USDA Service Centers within the watersheds, and electronically at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/.

After completing the self-assessment producers should schedule an appointment to discuss their application with the NRCS local staff to determine if they meet specific CSP eligibility requirements.

2006 marks the third CSP sign-up under the 2002 farm bill. Privately owned land currently enrolled in CSP covers nearly 11 million acres in the 220 eligible watersheds in all 50 states and the Caribbean Area, according to USDA.

A voluntary conservation program, the CSP provides payments for maintaining and enhancing natural resources, using three tiers of conservation contracts. CSP will be available any year on a rotational basis in as many watersheds as funding allows.

That’s a far cry from the program Sen. Harkins wrote into the 2002 farm bill. Harkin’s original language would have provided payments to reward farmers for implementing recognized conservation practices on their land nationwide.

Additional information about USDA’s CSP is available from county NRCS offices or by clicking on http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp.

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