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Save the Conservation Security Program

(Monday, Nov. 24, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- NY Times editorial, 11/23/03: In the debacle of last year's farm bill, a few programs emerged that had both common sense and innovation behind them. One that actually made it into law was called the Conservation Security Program. It would pay farmers to keep up conservation practices they have already adopted and to add new ones as well. It was a way to support good farming practices in every region and on farms of every size. You didn't have to grow a commodity crop to qualify. It was, in short, a way for Americans to help farmers take good care of America's land. When President Bush signed the farm bill, he took the trouble to praise its conservation provisions.

But a lot has happened to the Conservation Security Program since then. The Agriculture Department has yet to write the rules that would put it into effect, even though they were required by law last February. The White House has insisted that any emergency funds for crop damage from drought or floods be paid out of the money set aside for the Conservation Security Program, thereby cutting its financing nearly in half, to $3.77 billion over 10 years from $6.9 billion. Now, in the House's agricultural appropriations bill, the $53 million set aside for this new program in next year's budget has been wiped out entirely with a stroke of the appropriators' pen. This is called "mandatory savings" reducing funds for a mandatory program.

President Bush did not request this savings, though his tax cuts made it inevitable. It was the House's own idea to gut the Conservation Security Program, which farmers, environmentalists and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called one of the best farm programs in ages.

To almost anyone who thinks seriously about agriculture, the House of Representatives is the place where truly bad ideas are raised to the level of doctrine. The House seems to understand only one way to help out farmers: giving fat checks to the biggest farmers for raising crops we have too much of anyway. When the House and Senate meet in conference next week to resolve their differences, the Senate should stand up for this program and restore its full financing, $53 million, for 2004. If we are ever going to find a new model for agricultural spending, it will begin with smart, innovative and egalitarian programs like this one.