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Farm Bill Conservation Strides Praised

by Scott A. Yates
Capital Press, May 3, 2002

SPOKANE, Wash. -- It'll take weeks to sort it all out, but there's no mistaking the excitement in Read Smith's voice as he talks about the conservation provisions of the 2002 farm bill.

"I'm tickled to death. It's a tremendous start," said the Palouse farmer who serves as president of the National association of Conservation Districts.

Smith has been working for years on a new approach to farm bill policy. Although much of the news is focused on the commodity provisions of the legislation, he said the farm bill's conservation measures may signal the start of a new era.

Given the criticism of the farm bill by some environmental groups, his enthusiasm seems out of place. Furthermore, he is pinning his hopes for change on an untried new conservation program.

It's authored by senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and co-sponsored by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. The Conservation Security Program will pay farmers who practice good environmental stewardship on working lands.

In the House and Senate agriculture committees' summary of the farm bill conference agreement this week, the CSP gets short shrift. It's referred to it as a "new national incentive payment program for maintaining and increasing farm and ranch stewardship practices" and funded to the tune of $2 billion over 10 years.

But Smith said the $2 million (billion) is a budget estimate and is not set in concrete. He said the CSP, which won't go into effect until 2003, will be a nationwide entitlement program. If there is strong interest from farmers, the dollars beyond $2 billion will be found to fund it.

"The one issue we worked on all day yesterday was making sure $2 billion wasn't a cap on the program," he said April 30. "As of yesterday, it wasn't." The House and Senate were set to vote on the bill May 2.

Harkin orginally envisioned the farm bill as one that would shift federal money away from traditional channels into more conservation-minded ones. Under CSP, farmers will receive annual payments for "resource management systems" on their farms according to the different practices or "tiers" they achieve.

These tiers, said Smith will be created with local input and customized to regions.

"It won't be business as usual even in tier 1. It needs to be something more than conservation compliance," he said.

The beauty of the program is that early adopters will not be penalized -- as they have been with other programs -- for taking the conservation lead. This CSP, he said, rewards producers for keeping in place a management system of a certain caliber regardless of their history.

"Those folks contributing to the environment all along are going to be rewarded," he said.

The reward will not be particularly large. Smith said numbers he's heard have tier 1 returning 2 percent of the county average rental rate, tier 2, 10 percent and tier 3, 20 percent.

This is not income stabilization, Smith said, it is a conservation program and it better stand on its on two legs as such.

"This is the program of the future and may very well replace everything in this farm bill and we won't need 11 titles. It is not inconceivable you could take the whole $48 billion (in commodity spending) and roll it into something the public would be proud of and that you won't see Environmental Working Group blasting all over the Internet," he said.

Scott A. Yates, Capital Press Staff Writer
Farm Bill Conservation Strides Praised
Capital Press, May 3, 2002

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