What’s happening with conservation programs for 2013?  Will there be sign-ups?  Is money available for agricultural conservation in the midst of sequestration? 

The answer to these questions comes under the “no news is good news” category.  The sign-up for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program is mostly complete for this year.  The Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) should all be available this year, albeit with reduced funding and timing for sign-ups that may prove challenging for farmers and ranchers. 

Several months ago, I encouraged producers to review their operations to determine what conservation improvements they wanted to make.  At that time, we thought that Congress would avoid sequestration.  Unfortunately, the automatic funding cuts went into effect, and agencies are now beginning to move forward with plans under reduced budgets.  Yes, there will be less money.  Yes, there will be fewer contracts offered.  Yes, fewer acres will be accepted.  But conservation programs will continue. 

On February 16, USDA announced the 45th general sign-up for CRP to take place May 20 to June 14; additional sign-ups for continuous CRP programs such as Highly Erodible Land Initiative and Initiative to Restore Grasslands, Wetlands and Wildlife are to be announced later this spring.  Currently, 27 million acres are enrolled in CRP with 3.3 million acres set to expire on September 30, 2013.  Mysteriously, the Office of Management and Budget has yet to actually grant the funding for the program to USDA (one of the bean counters must want to try to make the pain of sequestration worse).

Spring sign-ups are likely for the NRCS programs, even though this timing may be tough for farmers in the midst of spring planting.  That mysterious bean counter at OMB is also sitting on the apportionment for the GRP and WRP acreages.   I expect that whenever the hostages are released NRCS will be enabled to announce to announce sign-ups for GRP and WRP soon.  The good news for thousands of conservationists is that the most recent deal to fund the government through the end of this year also means that there will be now be a sign-up for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).   The sign-up dates have not been announced, but it will likely be this spring.   So farmers and ranchers need to take advantage of rain delays or other down times to consider applying to place croplands, wetlands or grazing lands in one of these programs. 

It may be difficult to believe, but CSP has become the largest agricultural conservation program, now covering more than 50 million acres.  More acres will be added (perhaps around 12 million acres or less due to sequestration) with contracts signed between now and September 30.   The program is complicated and paperwork-intensive, but it does give one the chance to get funding to embrace some of the more innovative practices available in conservation.  I encourage farmers to take a look at this program—don’t listen to the coffee shop chatter—and see if it will work for your operation. 

Finally, don’t let fear-mongering or the fact that the programs will have less money or cover fewer acres stop you from applying.  Now is the time to visit your local office and begin the application process.  You don’t need to wait for the announcements.  Make your plans and get your name on the list for consideration as soon as possible.  Then whenever program announcements are made your application will be ready.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.


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