Environmental activists have been saying for years that farm program payments should be tied to conservation rather than to crop yields, commodity loan rates or supply management objectives.

The primary justification for passing the Conservation Security Program and increased funding for CRP, WRP, EQIP, WHIP, GRP and FPP in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 was to create a “greener” farm bill that could win votes from urban congressmen.

If the rules for the recently expanded Conservation Security Program are an example, however, farmers may find it much more difficult to obtain monetary assistance from conservation programs than from any of the price support programs available to them today.

Although Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin envisioned a program that would be open to all farmers when he drafted the legislation for the 2002 farm bill, the Bush administration has been highly selective in implementing CSP.

After Congress reduced the funding for the program in fiscal 2004, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service announced the first sign-up would be for farmers in 18 watersheds across the United States. Only one was located in the Southeast.

The NRCS announced a subsequent sign-up to include 202 watersheds last November, and, last month, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns unveiled one for 220 watersheds containing about 185 million acres. Sign-up for the latest began March 28 and continues through May 27.

Congress provided $202 million for CSP in the fiscal 2005 — a far cry from the $4 billion that the Congressional Budget Office said the initial CSP would put into the farm economy annually. The $202 million is enough for 12,000 to 14,000 contracts, according to the NRCS.

To be eligible for the latest program, farmers must meet several criteria: 1) The land must be privately owned and mostly located in one of the watersheds; 2) The applicant must comply with previous farm bills, have an active interest in the operation and control of the land for the life of the contract; and 3) The applicant must share in the risk of producing crops or livestock and be entitled to a share in the crop or livestock.

Applicants must first complete a self-assessment workbook to determine if they meet the requirements of the program. NRCS will use the workbook to help decide the enrollment category and the level of funding.

Payments are capped at $20,000, $35,000 and $45,000 for three levels of participation — Tiers I, II and III. Each tier requires increasingly complicated soil quality practices, which include crop rotations, cover crops, tillage practices, prescribed grazing and providing adequate wind barriers.

The new sign-up also offers a renewable energy component that compensates farmers for converting to soy biodiesel and ethanol, recycling 100 percent of on-farm lubricants and implementing new wind, solar, geothermal and methane production systems.

The CSP makes signing up for counter-cyclical payments look easy, but, given the outlook for future farm programs and funding, farmers should begin preparing for them now.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com