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Save landmark farm conservation program

By Paul D. Johnson
Prairie Writers Circle

(Tuesday, July 8, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The latest farm bill includes a pioneering plan to preserve working farmland while it supports farm families. But the newborn is now on Congressí chopping block.

The new plan, years overdue, is called the Conservation Security Program. In contrast to the usual subsidies for production, this landmark entitlement rewards responsible farming that conserves our soil and water for future generations.

The Agriculture Department this summer is developing the plan's exact rules. Enrollment is scheduled to start Oct. 1.

But last month the House Appropriations Committee cut all funding. And to add more insult to conscientious farmers, the committee zeroed out money for two other innovative programs that support family farms, rural communities and the environment -- one that assists farmers pursuing alternatives to stay in business, such as direct marketing, and another that helps farmers become more energy efficient.

The committee is essentially rewriting the farm bill, approved in 2002, to take us back to business as usual.

Traditional federal crop payments to farmers are tied to production. They guarantee an income for what the farmer grows, but are keyed to output, regardless of how a farmer treats his land. Farmers keep very little of this income. The biggest beneficiaries are the corporations that sell the farmer the equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and other supplies needed to boost production.

Conservation Security, on the other hand, would encourage farmersí good stewardship of the land on which we all depend.

Here is how the program would work. A farmer consults a USDA conservationist to evaluate the farmís effects on its natural resources. The farmer decides what level of conservation he is willing to achieve. A plan is developed for farming practices such as crop rotations, improved grazing and grass buffer strips to filter runoff. At the highest level, the farmer must develop a whole-farm plan that will protect all identifiable resources from degradation.

Unlike federal crop payments that give 70 percent of $17 billion annually to only 10 percent of enrolled farms for just eight specific crops, Conservation Security would cost an estimated $4 billion over 10 years and address all crop and livestock operations in all regions of the country. It would help any farmer or rancher willing to adopt or continue verifiable conservation.

With more than 80 percent of farmers working off farm to survive low grain and livestock prices, the program would be an important support for good stewardship. And Conservation Security would be an effective way to address the many environmental problems blamed on agriculture.

If reasonable limits were set on crop payments to the nationís largest farms, as proposed by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, all of the new innovative farm programs that the House committee axed could be restored at no additional cost to the federal budget.

Agricultural policy is at a crossroads as the House and Senate work to finish farm bill funding details by mid-July. The Conservation Security Program starts to define a new direction, one that rewards the nation's most responsible farmers. It recognizes that soil and water conservation is a national long-term responsibility that should be fairly shared by the farmer and the taxpayer. Lawmakers saw this in passing the 2002 farm bill.

Congress should stay the wise course it set last year. The long-term health of our most precious resource, the land, demands it.

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Paul D. Johnson is a northeast Kansas organic market gardener and a family farm legislative advocate for several churches in Kansas. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at The Land Institute, Salina, Kan.