USDA officials deliver Conservation 101 for Farm Bill Audit

By Sara Wyant
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, July 7 - The days of big increases in conservation spending may be over, but there could be ways to deliver more voluntary conservation “bang for the buck” according to those participating in the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry audit hearings on farm policy Thursday.

“In the current fiscal environment we will be faced with some difficult decisions, regarding the fate of programs in all parts of the farm bill, including Title II (the conservation title),” said Subcommittee Chair Glenn 'GT' Thompson. Five of the more than 20 conservation programs administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) have no budget baseline after next year.

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Ranking Member Tim Holden (D-PA) expressed concerned that, in light of budget cutting pressures, “USDA remains able to deliver effective conservation programs with fewer resources and respond to the demand from those landowners who depend on them to combat economic and regulatory pressures. He asked NRCS Chief Dave White which conservation program provides the most benefit to assist with mounting regulations.

“EQIP,” replied White in providing the four letter acronym for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which he described as “the main bricks and mortar conservation program we have in the U.S.

“In EQIP we have a statuatory provision that says one of the purposes of the program is to help producers meet or avoid the need for regulation. With that statement, you have stood NRCS as the shield arm between regulatory agencies and our producers. You have arrayed the strategic forces of 11,000 or 12,000 highly trained technical people with billions of dollars at their disposal to help producers meet or avoid regulations,” Chief White explained.

“I could die a happy person if I could turn the regulatory community into the Maytag repairman,” he added. 

The audit hearing provided important background for lawmakers looking at ways to provide more environmental protection with tight federal resources. In written testimony, Chief White explained that fiscal year 2010 was a record year in conservation program delivery.

“Of special note is the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). A nationwide emphasis on wetlands conservation resulted in a record-setting WRP enrollment of nearly 273,000 acres, exceeding the next-highest yearly total by more than 58,000 acres and nearly doubling our average annual enrollment. And while much work remains to be done in completing restoration work associated with these record enrollments, more than 129,000 acres of wetlands were created, restored or enhanced in FY 2010,” he testified.

“While acreage numbers are impressive, the more important outcome is that these wetlands are now providing essential habitat for at-risk species, such as the threatened Louisiana Black Bear and the endangered Whooping Crane. The better job we do in assisting in keeping candidate and other at-risk species off the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, the greater flexibility our producers have in providing food, feed, and fiber for the Nation and the world,” Chief White added.

Farm Service Agency Administrator Bruce Nelson, who administers more than 31 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other conservation programs, said more environmental and conservation benefits are being generated than ever before, while administrative costs per CRP contract are going down.

“We have streamlined tasks and reduced signup costs by about 30% per contract for general signup and 18% for continusous sign up,” Nelson said.

Ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn, expressed concern that, in an effort to cut farm bill spending, there might be “some meat ax” taken to the CRP that will end up costing taxpayers more in the long run for crop insurance and disaster payments.

“Next year we will have probably 6 million acres come out (of the CRP), and probably see only half of that coming back in,” Peterson said. “We have a process set that is sorting out the land that should be farmed and the land that shouldn't be farmed.”

For an audio wrap of the subcommittee hearing:


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