The Conservation Security Program “just doesn't get any respect” from Congress or the Bush administration, according to environmentalists who have begun pushing for a higher profile for the CSP in the new farm bill.
Since a House-Senate conference committee included the legislation in the 2002 farm law, congressional leaders and USDA have treated it like a stepchild, cutting a total of $4 billion in funding from the CSP while touting the environmental benefits of conservation programs.
The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which recently awarded Congress a grade of D+ and the administration a C- for their handling of the current law, says the CSP should be the primary stewardship incentive program in the 2007 farm bill.
“Many groups believe a top priority in the next farm bill is a bigger and better Conservation Security Program,” says agricultural policy specialist Mike McGrath. “This is how we will send farmers the right signal — we want to reward conservation, not just all-out production.”
Besides raising the CSP's profile, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Izaak Walton League and the Land Stewardship Project want to “establish effective commodity program payment limitations to prevent abuse and stop subsidizing mega farms to bid land away from small and moderate-sized family farms.”
That's not good news for commercial farmers who rely on such payments to secure financing, but it's the language those organizations believe will help sell their agenda to urban congressmen.
The groups also plan to try to use administration and congressional budget-cutting efforts to muster support for shifting funding from commodity programs to the CSP, which uses a three-tier payment system for rewarding growers for different levels of conservation.
“When faced with reducing the farm bill budget, Congress cut rural development, conservation and agricultural research while opting to leave annual million-dollar production subsidy checks to mega farms unscathed,” the groups said. “Meanwhile, USDA talks the talk of reform, but won't walk the walk, failing to act to close regulatory loopholes.”
The groups also want to reduce barriers to would-be farmers through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, which they say USDA has yet to fund although it was authorized in the 2002 farm bill.
“Contrary to what some say, there are people who want to get started farming,” says John Schmidt, a Land Stewardship Project member from Minnesota. “We need a farm bill that opens doors for new farmers, not one that shuts them.”
The groups gave Congress and the administration relatively high marks — a B — for expanding organic farming systems. “Both the Organic Farm Research and Extension Initiative and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program are off to a good start, but organic is still not getting anywhere close to its fair share of resources,” they said.
Such language may be hard for members of the main-line farm organizations to swallow. But get used to it. You'll probably be hearing a lot more of it between now and when Congress passes a new farm bill.