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Senate committee supports Conservation Security Program

The Senate Appropriations Committee today is expected to approve an agricultural spending bill that won't put a cap on the Conservation Security Program.

To Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, it was a significant victory in his often losing battle to salvage a program that the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee saw as one of his best achievements when the 2002 Farm Bill was written.

The CSP was intended as a national program, one that would reward farmers and ranchers who incur added costs when they preserve soil, water, wildlife and other resources on working lands. And like commodity programs, it was written into the farm law as an uncapped entitlement program whose costs would be determined largely by the number of producers who signed up and qualified.

It hasn't happened.

Since the law was passed, "some $4 billion has been taken out of the conservation security program alone," Harkin said Thursday. That's been done by putting an annual cap on spending, and by USDA rules that limit signup to just certain watersheds each year. The House of Representatives, which has already passed its own version of an ag spending bill, wants to cap CSP spending again for the 2007 fiscal year that starts in October.

According to Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the House bill limits the CSP spending next year to $280 million, "or just about enough to pay for the long-term contracts signed by farmers in 2004-2006, but not enough for any new sign-ups in 2007."

Harkin thanked Utah Senator Robert Bennett, Chair of the Senate's Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee for lending bipartisan support for spending for CSP. But he said he's concerned that when the House and Senate meet to put together a final ag spending bill, the House members will push for a spending cap.

The small size of the program and its red tape has already frustrated farmers.

Recently, James Andrew of the Iowa Soybean Association told the Senate Agriculture Committee that farmers waiting for their watershed to qualify for the CSP are "disillusioned and frustrated with the slow pace of program implementation," according to the National Association of Wheat Growers newsletter.

Harkin pointed out that there's a bigger issue in all of the cuts to ag spending that have been driven by the federal budget deficit. The $4 billion taken out of CSP, for example, won't be part of the "baseline" for the budget for the next farm bill, Harkin told Agriculture Online. That means that Congress is likely to have less money to work with for all USDA programs, Harkin said, adding that he's complained about that on the floor of the Senate.

"I keep saying, 'Do you know what you're doing? You're cutting the baseline,' " he said.

That doesn't mean Harkin believes the CSP program is dead. This year USDA signed up more than 4,000 farms and ranches into the CSP and will spend $440 million in payments over the next 10 years. But the program has been offered in only about 13% of all watersheds so far.

Harkin said he'll fight to expand the program when the next farm bill is written.

"I'm going to continue to fight for the CSP program. It's got too much support around the country," he said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee today is expected to approve an agricultural spending bill that won't put a cap on the Conservation Security Program.

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