In a textbook example of bait-and-switch, the Bush administration continues to renege on key soil and water conservation programs it agreed to in the 2002 farm bill.
A quick look at almost any 2002-approved conservation program shows the White House, with ample help from a foot-dragging U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, will backpedal even faster on its green commitments in 2005.
Reserve program. Take the massively popular Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), arguably the most successful water-cleaning, wildlife-enhancing, soil-saving (USDA estimates Conservation Reserve Program saves 442 million tons of the nation’s soil per year) farm program ever.
The 2002 farm bill raised CRP’s enrollment cap from 36.4 million acres to 39.2 million.
According to June 15 House Ag conservation subcommittee testimony by James Little, USDA’s Farm Service Agency administrator, CRP holds but 34.6 million acres.
Slowdown reasons. Two linked reasons lie behind CRP’s slowdown.
First, the Bush administration has held only one general CRP signup in the more than three years its agribusiness-friendly appointees have managed USDA.
The Clinton Administration held five in eight years.
Odd thing about CRP is that if it’s to be the centerpiece of farm conservation you have to allow farmers to enroll.
The Bush Administration has not.
To be fair, USDA is now deciding when the next general enrollment will occur – which leads to the second reason.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of Agriculture declined to set a date for an open enrollment period because of “concerns” over low world grain stocks.
FSA’s Little echoed Veneman when pressed by House Ag committee members June 15 to pick a date – either yet this year or early 2005 – for a new signup.
We need to look at the August production and grain stocks estimates, explained Little, before opening up CRP because “we could end up with a shortfall of supply, given demand.”
Rep. Jerry Moran, R-KS, almost giggled when he heard that excuse again because “my assumption is that CRP is a conservation program, not a supply-demand tool.”
Oh, it’s a conservation program, replied Little, but… But nothing.
Most people know. Little simply admitted what most people already know: USDA’s agribiz buddies hate CRP; it cuts sales of seed, fertilizer, fuel, equipment and pushes up prices paid by food processors.
Today’s tight global grain supply, Little all but confessed, gives us the excuse to convert CRP into a supply management tool which, incidentally, boosts our buddies’ input sales, increases production and drives down global grain prices.
How much will it take? Of the many problems contained in that approach – not the least of which is that it defies 20 years of Congressional intent – Little did not say what the magic August production and stock numbers must be for USDA to move forward with a general CRP enrollment. An 800-million bu. corn carryover?
A 50-million soybean bu. carryover? What? Of equal importance is who will pick the numbers.
Will it be USDA staff economists (using who-knows-what formulae) or will it be USDA’s Big Bopper, J. B. Penn, a former master of the universe at Sparks and Co.?
It’s likely we will never know; nor will Congress because no one at the June 15 House hearing pressed Little on these crucial details.
The rub worsens. The rub worsens when taking into account USDA’s abysmal record to implement the 2002 Farm Bill’s Conservation Security Program.
Unlike the land-retiring CRP, Conservation Security Program (CSP) pays farmers to enact conservation practices on crop-producing farmland. But USDA was so slow in writing rules for CSP, designed as an open-ended entitlement program, Congress didn’t give it a nickel in 2003 and only $41 million in 2004.
Final interim. The “final interim” rules, issued in early June, now show that about 5 percent of all U.S. farmers can ever hope to participate in CSP. That will bite all U.S. farmers in 2007 and 2008 when 22 million acres of CRP contracts expire.
Without a total rewrite of CSP rules before then and USDA’s firm commitment to CRP as a conservation program now, most of those acres will being growing price-flattening crops soon.
Congress needs to put USDA’s feet to the fire on both programs before USDA burns both you and 20 years of farmland conservation.
(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: AGuebert@worldnet.att.net. Read his columns online at www.farmanddairy.com.)
© 2004 ag comm