President Bush will propose that spending on conservation programs be increased by $582 million to a record $3.9 billion when he submits his new budget to Congress, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced.

Speaking at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association annual meeting in Nashville, the secretary said the Fiscal Year 2004 funding request will be $1.9 billion higher or nearly double the amount available when the Bush administration took office two years ago.

Much of the funding will be required to pay for the “new and improved” conservation programs that Congress authorized when it passed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. But Veneman seemed to be eager to take credit for any administration role in the increased funding.

“This administration has worked hard to ensure strong environmental programs are available to our nation's farmers and ranchers,” said Veneman. “Farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of the land, and we will continue to ensure these programs are administered effectively and in the best interest of producers and the environment.”

Direct assistance

Nearly $3.5 billion of the conservation proposal will be used for financial assistance or other direct payments to farmers, including the following:

$2 billion for the Conservation Reserve Program for rental and other costs on new and old acreage, an increase of approximately $140 million over 2003;

$850 million will be provided for the EQIP program, a $255 million increase above FY 2003;

$250 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program to enroll an additional 178,000 acres;

$112 million for the Farmland Protection Program, which is $27 million over the 2003 level;

$85 million for the Grassland Reserve Program, a $13 million increase over 2003.

$42 million for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, an increase of $16 million over 2003;

$19 million for the new Conservation Security Program on which an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule (ANPR) is expected shortly.

The Conservation Security Program was the centerpiece of the new conservation proposals offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, while he was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee before the Republican victories in last fall's mid-term elections. Some had questioned whether the administration would push to fund the program.

All delivered

Veneman said the president's budget ensures that all of the cost-share and technical assistance conservation work authorized by the 2002 farm bill for FY 2004 will be delivered. USDA will use an additional $432 million, through a new Farm Bill Technical Assistance account, to ensure farmers and ranchers can access the technical work necessary to fully utilize the conservation programs' financial assistance.

This new account, which the administration initially proposed for FY 2003 at $333 million, is necessary because of a statutory cap that restricts USDA's ability to pay for technical assistance from farm program funds.

“In the short time this administration has been in office, we are more than doubling our investment in environmental and conservation programs that not only benefit farmers and ranchers, but communities throughout the country,” said Veneman.

“This record-level request illustrates the priority the president places on conserving natural resources by providing landowners the tools they need for private land management.”

During her remarks, Veneman also announced that the proposed rule for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, reauthorized in the 2002 farm bill, is being released for publication in the Federal Register for public comment. This will allow farmers and ranchers the ability to utilize program funding in the coming year.

Proposal highlights

Highlights of the revised EQIP proposal include a reduction in the amount of planning requirements needed to develop a contract; provides up to 90 percent cost share for limited resource and beginning producers; allowance of producers to have more than one contract per tract at any given time; allocates 60 percent of EQIP funds towards livestock related practices; and, eliminates the program's dual administration by delegating EQIP to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The new EQIP will also provide livestock producers with cost share assistance for waste storage facilities regardless of size, but they must develop and implement a comprehensive nutrient management plan to qualify.

“Conservation incentive programs for working lands, in combination with technical assistance, help reduce the regulatory burden on farmers and ranchers faced with air and water quality restrictions,” Veneman said. “The team at USDA has worked to ensure these proposed rules are producer-friendly and will achieve the intended results of these programs.”

Comment period

Comments on the EQIP proposal will be accepted for 30 days after publication. Additional information on EQIP and other conservation programs is on the USDA Web site at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/.

During her remarks, Secretary Veneman also discussed other issues of importance to cattle producers, including animal disease protection programs, risk management tools, trade, food safety, country-of-origin labeling, and forest management.

For a transcript of her remarks, as well as a summary of USDA's mid-term accomplishments, visit http://www.usda.gov/.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com