Proposed rules for the new Conservation Security Program — which will prioritize watersheds to determine eligibility — are now available for review during a 60-day comment period. USDA published the proposed rules on Jan. 2, 2004.

“We encourage farmers and the general public to look at these rules and comment on them. We really need help from the people who the rules will affect the most,” said Gary Margheim special assistant to the chief, USDA/NRCS. He discussed the rules during the 2004 Beltwide Cotton Conferences, in San Antonio.

USDA will also hold a series of 10 listening sessions across the United States, “to hear concerns and thoughts about the proposed rules,” Margheim noted. A schedule of the listening sessions, most of which will be conducted in February, will be released later. Final rules could be in place 60 days after the comment period. “The goal is to have a signup this fiscal year if at all possible.”

The CSP is a new program that offers payments for topnotch conservation farmers and ranchers. Unlike other programs that help producers fix resource problems, CSP rewards those who already act as model conservationists. It also pays qualified producers to do further environmental enhancements, such as additional conservation treatments, evaluation, on-farm demonstrations and more.

‘Completes portfolio’

The CSP, “completes the portfolio of the conservation programs we have,” Margheim said. “The Secretary said it best, ‘It's a program designed award the best and motivate the rest in terms of conservation.’ It's the first conservation program we've had that really recognizes and rewards good land stewardship, and encourages others to do better.”

The CSP, as it is currently proposed, “is a capped entitlement program,” Margheim noted. “In theory there are about 1.8 million people who are eligible and somehow, we have to narrow that down due to budgetary constraints, to 50,000 people to 100,000 people.”

To achieve that, “we are proposing to go to a priority watershed approach. We going to take roughly 2,000 watersheds over the United States and prioritize those. We'll announce prior to a signup which watersheds will have contracts funded.”

At the next signup a new group of watersheds will be funded, fulfilling the commitment of the law which mandates a national program.

“It's a really an exciting program,” Margheim said. “We have cost-share programs, land retirement programs and technical assistance that our agency provides. But we've never really had a program that recognizes ongoing good stewardship and at the same time provides incentives to doing better.”

Three tiers

The CSP is a three-tiered program with different requirements for each program. All CSP producers, regardless of the tier at which they participate, must ultimately address minimum treatment criteria for soil quality and water quality.

Techniques to achieve these soil and water criteria will vary depending on a farm's slope, climate, soil texture and other characteristics. Typically, soil resource management will result in fertile soil with valuable organic matter that is protected from erosion, Additionally, pesticides and nutrients will be managed to help keep surface and groundwater clean to protect human and environmental health.

Techniques may include, crop rotation, control of erosion or soil loss, use of buffers to protect water sources, testing soils and applying fertilizers accordingly, record keeping, scheduling irrigation based on crop needs and willingness to pursue additional conservation enhancements.

To view the rule go to www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2002. Provide comments on the rule to david.mckay@usda.gov or to Conservation Operations Division, NRCS, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, D.C., 20013.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com