New conservation program may debut soon - Soil conservation boss says `green' management system faces uncertain funding

John Stucke
Spokesman-Review Staff writer


The nation's farm conservation chief said a new voluntary program that rewards "green" agricultural management may be ready for rollout by late summer despite concerns the House may gut funding.

Called the Conservation Security Program, the policy is a new approach that pays farmers and ranchers for meeting conservation incentives.

Bruce Knight, CEO of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, spoke Monday to several hundred conservation professionals from around the nation. The group is meeting at the Spokane Convention Center this week for the Soil and Water Conservation Society's annual conference.

The conservation program was created by the 2002 Farm Bill as a voluntary way to pay farmers for complying with environmental goals outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Before the program can be offered, however, the agency must finish the rulemaking phase, an arduous and lengthy task in which the details are settled.

The funding hurdle may be more difficult. The program is mired in a larger political fight that pits some conservation programs against those that instead promote high crop production.

Knight expressed confidence during his address Monday that the money would be available.

The voluntary aspect of the program fits with the Bush administration's focus of encouraging change in many environmental issues through incentives rather than regulations.

Some growers may be able to collect up to $45,000 if their farms address conservation concerns. Other farmers would collect less if they don't meet specific program targets.

The security program is different than the popular Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to pull highly erodible land and other acreage out of production.

The security program is not focused on idling lands, but rather promoting conservation techniques on the 900 million acres of cropland and pasture throughout the country.

The myriad of conservation programs and their larger share of federal funding concerns many farmers, especially in high production regions like Eastern Washington.

Some say conservation programs are shifting the focus of farming away from growing food to idling land and collecting government payments.

This scenario hurts the economy of rural America where small towns and businesses depend on agriculture spending for such things as seed, machinery, fuel and fertilizer.

Gretchen Borck, issues director for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, asked Knight during a press briefing about the conflict between high crop production and conservation programs that increasingly pull land out of active farming or encourage techniques that don't necessarily equal better yields and therefore more money.

A South Dakota farmer before lobbying for corn and wheat groups, Knight said conservation is smart politics that nets important support from urban lawmakers whose constituency wants better environmental stewardship of rural lands.


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