Fight is on for piece of conservation pie


Farm bill fights usually center on the legislation’s commodity title, the section that explains who, when and how farmers can tap the federal treasury should crop prices fall.
But with the key aggies in Congress already in tacit agreement not to overhaul the 2002 farm bill’s commodity program, the bigger battleground in the 2007 rewrite will center on the conservation title for two, interlocking reasons – money and ethanol.
The money being pushed for 2007 farm bill conservation programs is stunning. For example, on March 15, Rep. Ron Kind, D-WS, proposed doubling annual farm bill conservation spending – from about $2.7 billion now to over $5 billion – with his Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuel Act, an alternative 2007 farm bill.
Kind’s plan, introduced simultaneously in the Senate, has 86 House co-sponsors.
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has a richer conservation plan, too. On April 10, he again touted his hope that Congress will streamline farm bill conservation programs and add another $7.8 billion to their pot over the next decade.
The irony of these ideas is that conservation spending is set to balloon if Congress does nothing more than photocopy the 2002 farm bill and re-title it “2007 farm bill.”
According to Congressional Budget Office numbers issued last January, baseline spending for 2012 commodity programs will be $9.75 billion, while conservation will get nearly $9 billion.
By comparison, the 2006 USDA baseline held $18 billion for commodity programs and $3.5 billion for conservation programs.
The biggest reason for the massive shift is ethanol’s price-raising impact. The bio-fuel boom is expected to cut spending for federal commodity price support programs by, as Carl Sagan might say, billions and billions.
Second, like the Congressional Budget Office, most farm bill watchers see this Democratically-led Congress more fully funding the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a 2002 Democratically-written farm bill program the White House and USDA handcuffed with complex rules and massive under-funding.
Indeed, CSP is the likely linchpin to 2007 conservation programs because farmers, if given a chance to participate in it, will love CSP because it requires no land retirement.
In short, if you farm your land according to a customized conservation plan, you’ll get CSP money.
But that underlying produce-and-get-paid idea as the centerpiece of USDA conservation efforts is abhorrent to Craig Cox, executive director of the private, nonprofit Soil and Water Conservation Society.
“In the future, we will be getting a lot less for our conservation spending,” Cox told a Washington, D.C. meeting in February, under an expanded CSP. “For professional conservationists,” he added, “this is outrageous.”
A more directed approach is better: “Use EQIP in a watershed-focused manner,” he advocates.
Ah, EQIP, USDA’s Environmental Incentives Quality Program. It’s the biggest conservation program you never heard of with nearly 140,000 participants covering 81 million acres nationwide.
Even more incredible, tens of thousands of farmers and livestock producers are standing in line to get a piece of today’s $1 billion-plus-per-year EQIP money to fund everything from irrigation to building manure structures to enhancing pastures.
And almost everyone – from Congress to the White House to the big farm groups – is pushing its expansion. Some, like Cox’s group, want to see EQIP’s budget rise to $2 billion per year.
To do so, however, means other USDA conservation efforts, like the Wetlands Reserve, need to be trimmed or eliminated.
Is robbing shrinking wetland protection programs to pay for more manure lagoons smart conservation policy?
Of course not, but just as the biggest farmers get the biggest benefits of commodity programs, so too are they lining up for the biggest slice of the fatter, juicier conservation pie.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.