It's easy to forget the impact of the Conservation Reserve Program until you drive through the Delta and hill areas of Mississippi and see fields that have been fallowed or planted to trees.

When Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., first proposed the CRP, he wanted to protect highly erodible or worn out soils by removing them from row crop production, thus idling marginal land that was doing little other than to contribute to surpluses that depressed prices.

Sen. Cochran's epiphany came during a particularly intense farm bill debate. It occurred to him that he could win much-needed votes by including programs like the Conservation Reserve, the Wetlands Reserve, Environmental Quality Incentives and Wildlife Habitat Incentives in the legislation.

Initially, Congress approved a goal of enrolling 36 million acres in the CRP. Then it raised the authorization to 39 million acres in its effort to pass a more conservation-oriented farm bill in 2002.

The latter also included the Conservation Security Program, which promised to pay farmers for switching to reduced tillage and other conservation farming practices. But it appears something got lost in the translation when USDA attempted to implement the increased CRP and the CSP, according to watchdog groups.

Although Congress passed the law in May 2002, USDA did not conduct the first sign-up for the Conservation Security Program until this summer and then with a much more limited scope than the authors of the program intended.

For their part, USDA officials complained that the language authorizing the CSP was ambiguous. Then the House Budget Committee reduced the funding for the program in subsequent appropriations bills.

USDA's version limits the program to 18 priority watersheds in which the first sign-up was concluded July 30. But groups like the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says USDA was slow in providing the needed information for that sign-up.

“At the start, only one of the 18 watershed sites — the Blue Earth watershed in Minnesota and Iowa — included all of the relevant CSP payment information,” said the SAC's Ferd Hoefner. “Only three include any payment information.”

Hoefner said USDA also imposed four extra payment limits on the CSP besides the two that were included in the 2002 farm bill. “The latter will severely limit the size of CSP incentive payments for smaller acreage farms and likely result in few enrollments of these operations.

“The administration's implementation plan for CSP payments is not only incredibly complicated but favors large farms over smaller ones and those with high rental rates over others,” he said.

A report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago suggests that farm organizations may be forced to focus more on programs like the CRP and CSP because of the rumored WTO ruling against the U.S. cotton program and the new framework agreement in the WTO Doha Round negotiations. If that is the case, congressional leaders need to make sure the budget committee and USDA have a complete understanding of its conservation program intentions the next time around.