Conservation role debated

Collin Peterson, left, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, confers with Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, prior to a field hearing on the new farm bill May 1 in Nampa, Idaho.

Farmer wants Farm Service Agency to take over program


Capital Press

USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program still appears to be a work in progress.

Since its introduction in 2002, CSP has evolved into a voluntary nationwide program with a competitive application process. Individual farms are ranked based on their existing and proposed conservation practices.

Up to 12.7 million acres of cropland, pasture and private range and forestry land are expected to be enrolled this year.

The change to a competitive application process from a watershed-to-watershed approach has made the program more accessible to all growers and thus more equitable, Scott Brown, president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, told the U.S. House Agricultural Committee during a field hearing May 1 in Nampa, Idaho.

However, some growers have experienced delays in timely contract delivery and payment, which has caused disruption in farm budgeting, said Brown, a farmer in Soda Springs, Idaho.

While the NRCS is recognized as the technical provider of conservation practices, producers would be better served if the program was administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency, he said.

"We respectfully request that any new federal farm policy consider shifting the administrative functions of the CSP to the FSA, which has expertise in this area," Brown said in written comments to the committee.

The CSP offers two payment types: An annual payment for maintaining existing conservation practices and adopting new ones and a supplemental payment for adopting resource-conserving crop rotations.

Fred Brossy, an organic farmer from Shoshone, Idaho, said he already has a resource-conserving crop rotation in place, so he isn't eligible for that payment without making modifications that don't really make sense.

Meanwhile, another farm would qualify merely by adding another crop to an existing two-crop rotation, he said.

"While this rewards increasing diversity on the landscape, which is good, it also overlooks the conservation benefits of existing systems, which was the purported intent of the new CSP," Brossy told the committee.

Despite its shortcomings, the CSP is a good program and should be continued with some fine tuning in the 2012 Farm Bill, he said.

Given the current federal budget deficit situation, Brossy suggested that direct and counter-cyclical payments be tied to CSP qualifiers.

"This would really link food production to conservation stewardship, an appropriate national policy and worthy purpose for a farm bill," Brossy told the committee.

Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was cool to the idea.

The primary purpose of federal farm programs is to provide a safety net for producers, and eligibility for direct commodity payments shouldn't be linked to specific conservation practices, Peterson said.

"I'm all for conservation, but I'm not sure we want to mix that up with what I think the purpose of having a farm program is ... which is to give people the ability to manage their risk," he said.

CSP sign up

The Conservation Stewardship Program has a continuous sign up, but the cutoff date for ranking the latest round of applicants is fast approaching.

Producers must submit an application by June 11 to be considered for the next ranking and funding period.

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