WASHINGTON - Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced details of the watershed approach and enrollment procedures to be used for the fiscal year 2004 Conservation Security Program sign-up to be held this summer.

The announcement follows a series of listening sessions held by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to determine grower reaction to the proposed rule published for the CSP this past winter.

“Watersheds are nature’s boundaries and are a good way to group together producers working on similar environmental issues,” Veneman said in a statement. “With a rotation through the nation’s watersheds, every farmer and rancher will have a chance to participate in the program.

“This will provide the flexibility needed to expand the program as more funds become available.”

To implement CSP this fiscal year, Veneman said the Natural Resources Conservation Service will immediately begin to train employees on the selection process to determine priority watersheds and establish enrollment categories as described in the Federal Register notice published Tuesday.

USDA will use watersheds as a basis to determine CSP participation because Congress has only provided a $41 million budget for CSP in fiscal year 2004. Veneman said the $41 million will permit NRCS to write 3,000 to 5,000 contracts from an estimated 1.8 million pool of potentially eligible producers.

Administratively, the law requires that NRCS not incur more than 15 percent technical assistance costs associated with CSP, Veneman said. “Under this scenario, a nationwide program would not work; a watershed rotation offers a fair, science-based alternative.”

All CSP applications that meet the sign-up criteria will be placed in an enrollment category regardless of available funding. In addition to legal contract requirements, the categories will consider the applicants’ current stewardship (soil condition, tillage intensity, existing practices and activities) and will sort producers based on these factors. Categories also will examine producers’ willingness to perform additional conservation activities during their CSP contract.

The 2002 farm bill authorized USDA to establish a program that would have provided funding for all farmers eligible to participate in the CSP. However, House Republicans added language to the fiscal year 2004 appropriations bills that limited USDA to spending $41 million on the program in FY 2004.

CSP is a voluntary program that supports ongoing conservation stewardship of agricultural working lands and enhances the condition of America’s natural resources, USDA officials said. Additional information on CSP, including the Federal Register notice, public comments and frequently asked questions, can be found at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp.

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