Preliminary USDA data: Sequestration takes a bite out of conservation program

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Nov. 14, 2013 - Preliminary data from USDA shows that total 2013 acres enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is down from previous years.

Under CSP, landowners are paid for the success of their operation-level environmental enhancements. As the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which handles the program, notes, the “higher the operational performance, the higher their payment.”

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An analysis from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) says the decrease is due in part “to the effects of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration and in part…to the very late start for enrollment due to congressional delays in passing a final funding bill for fiscal year 2013.”

The across-the-board sequestration cuts went into effect in January of 2013 after a congressional super committee failed to come to a budget deal. Fiscal 2013's budget was not finalized until late March.

The data shows nearly 7,000 farmers and ranchers enrolled over 9.5 million acres through CSP in 2013, which will lead to $620 million in five-year CSP contract payments.

In 2011, 9,550 producers enrolled 12.75 million acres in CSP; in 2012, 9,036 enrolled 12.1 million.

As NSAC Policy Director Ferd Hoefner points out, the preliminary 2013 CSP data may have interesting implications for the current farm bill. The state with the most farmers and ranchers enrolled in 2013? House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas's own Oklahoma.

Under current policy, CSP enrollment is capped at 12.77 million acres annually. The Senate bill lowers that number to 10.35 acres for each fiscal year between 2014 and 2018. In the House bill, shepherded by Rep. Lucas, capped acreage is even less: about 8.7 million.

“Gutting the CSP will make it harder for Oklahoma farmers to prevent major losses in the future,” Oklahoma CSP participant James Bernard wrote in a July 2012 op-ed. (Note: The column was submitted by NSAC.) “To an outsider our prairies may look barren and desolate, but a lot of critters live there. Land enrolled in CSP provides habitat for the wildlife that preserves our outdoor lifestyle.”

Though commentators have noted the conservation title is fairly non-controversial - especially compared to issues like commodity subsidies, crop insurance and country of origin labeling - it's unclear where the final number will settle during conference negotiations.

NRCS says the data is likely to change after final budget reconciliation.

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