The new farm bill would be “the greenest ever,” if conservation provisions outlined in a “concept paper” by the House Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry makes their way into law.

While it's not likely the concepts will survive in total — there are many hurdles before a new farm bill is birthed — the paper does give an indication of the thinking in Washington these days and the pressures on the Bush administration and Congress to increase spending on these programs.

The House paper calls for $15.05 billion in funding over 10 years for conservation programs, an amazing 75 percent increase over the baseline budget amount. Among the program changes suggested:

  • Reauthorization of the popular Conservation Reserve Program through 2011, with a 40-million-acre enrollment cap, and expenditures of $1.4 billion over 10 years.

  • Reauthorization of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through 2011, at $1.2 billion annually, with livestock producers receiving 50 percent of annual funding. Additionally, a $300 million fund would be created in EQUIP to address groundwater conservation issues, including cost-sharing for more efficient irrigation systems. $10.3 billion over 10 years.

  • Reauthorization of the Wetlands Reserve Program, with 100,000 additional acres to be enrolled annually. Ten-year cost: $1.5 billion.

  • Reauthorization of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program to provide cost-sharing for landowners to enhance wildlife habitat. Cost: $250 million over 10 years.

  • Reauthorization of the Farmland Protection Program: $500 million over 10 years.

  • Providing up to $100 million yearly to provide conservation technical assistance to producers using any government or private contractors: $850 million over 10 years.

Additionally, there would be $150 million over 10 years to fund the Small Watershed Dam Restoration Program and $100 million to a combined Forestry Incentive Program and Stewardship Incentive Program.

“The next farm bill can give those of us in the conservation and agriculture communities an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to protecting and improving America's precious natural resources,” J. Read Smith, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, said at the House hearing.

‘Want right thing’

Most farmers and ranchers “want to do the right thing,” he said, “but they need help. They need the knowledge, the science, and the technical and financial assistance to fully provide the benefits the public wants.”

While the recommendations in the proposal “are a positive step” toward recognizing the value of conservation, Smith said, they “should go further and “extend stewardship incentives to all working lands.” Reaching far more producers, providing more local control, and delivering conservation assistance more effectively and efficiently” would provide far greater benefits than “the current menu of highly targeted, limited reach programs.”

This is as much as $8 billion annually, Smith said. “But we need to keep in mind that preventing resource problems now is far less costly than solving them later. We should also consider the return we will get on that investment in better soil, cleaner water, greater profits, and a brighter future.”

Ken Babcock, director of operations for the southern regional office of Ducks Unlimited Inc., said “the future of wildlife in this country is inseparably tied to actions undertaken on private lands, and agriculture is by far the dominant use on these lands.”

Programs' influence

Federal agricultural programs and policies “have an enormous influence” on the state of the nation's air, soil, water, plant, wildlife, and other natural resources, he noted, which prompted Congress to include strong conservation titles in the 1985 farm bills and in each of the two succeeding farm bills.

But, Babcock noted, while the House plan increases the total dollars dedicated to conservation programs, “We believe several important programs are not being funded or planned in the appropriate manner.”

He suggested expansion of the Wetlands Reserve Program to allow enrollment of 250,000 acres per year over 10 years; expanding the enrollment cap of the Conservation Reserve Program to its original 1985 level of 45 million acres; expanding the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program to $100 million annually; and establishing a Grasslands Reserve Program of up to one million acres. Bills to accomplish these goals have been introduced in the House.

e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com