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CSP part of ending environmental and agricultural battles

by Jeff Schahczenski
Executive Director, Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

(Sunday, May 9, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In article after article we are constantly bombarded with issues that seem to pit the environmental and agricultural communities against each other. For instance, in a recent editorial, Steve Appel of the Washington Farm Bureau laments the unfair loss to family farmers of the use of certain pesticides within 60 to 300 feet of salmon-bearing waters. This federal court order will have significant impacts on farmers and ranchers whose property happens to be located near these streams and rivers. However, today I am lamenting the slow politicized and bureaucratic destruction of an important conservation program that could be providing sustainable solutions that would end these unnecessary and destructive “fish versus farming” battles.

The Conservation Security Program (CSP) enacted into law in the 2002 Farm Bill, offers one of the best opportunities to reward farmers and ranchers for the environmentally sustainable ways they currently farm and ranch. If fully supported and enacted, CSP could be motivating even higher achievements of agriculture conservation. This would ultimately end the need to sue farmers and ranchers to force compliance with necessary and legally mandated environmental quality standards.

But the promise of the CSP is in jeopardy. Last week, almost two years to the day after its creation, USDA Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman announced an implementation process for the CSP that is so out of touch with the enabling legislation and its promise, that one wonder’s why over 18,000 leading citizens even bothered to offer public comment in its support. The “war” between the environment and agriculture is perpetuated because we have an administration that simply won’t listen to its own citizens and agricultural and environmental leaders, let alone follow the very legislative solutions it enacts.

The CSP provides a “classic” case of why we need to recognize that “the bureaucracy” is the fourth branch of the federal government. This “fourth branch” is just as “political” as the other three branches, but is missing some necessary checks and balances. The common tactics of this “bureaucratic” branch are obfuscation, delay and outright defiance of the will of Congress and thereby the will of the people.

The CSP is a simple and revolutionary idea. Instead of providing financial support to farmers and ranchers who are currently the most destructive to the production of healthy food and the preservation of the environment, we reward those who are already meeting high standards of environmentally sound agriculture. Furthermore, if these same farmers and ranchers are willing to go beyond their current high standards, the CSP will reward them even more. The legislation that created the CSP, provided for a national entitlement program that can maintain and enhance the highest possible standards for environmentally sound agriculture. CSP is also “free trade” compliant.

However, immediately upon passage the USDA and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) cried “complexity!” The USDA bureaucrats in effect said- “ How in the world will we ever be able to determine who the best agricultural conservationists are, how can we assess the dollar benefits they provide for the environmental health of society at large and how can we can possibly figure out how to get them support? This new CSP implementation will take time.

Two years later the incredible answer devised by USDA is that, to quote Secretary Veneman, “with 1.8 million potentially eligible producers, CSP must be focused”. In other words, all 1.8 million farmers and ranchers in this country are good conservationists and rewarding them all for the benefits they provide us is really well, just too expensive. Here the USDA deliberately obscured the meaning of entitlement and eligibility. False alarms of rising costs raised red flags with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which further delayed implementation. While the CSP legislation clearly states that to be eligible for this program one has to have already “solved” a major resource problem to a non-degradation level, USDA and OMB seem to think that every farmer and rancher in the country has done this already! This is like suggesting for example, that all farmers have controlled soil erosion at or below the soil loss tolerance level, yet the fact is that over 100 million acres of cropland currently erode at higher rates representing hundreds of thousands of producers who would NOT be eligible for the CSP.

So based on this (deliberate?) confusion, USDA creates more confusion by suggesting that because of the high expense of supporting the entire nations’ agriculture community for its benefits to environmental health, we need to limit our reward system to certain “high priority” watersheds. We are told by Secretary Veneman that “watersheds are nature’s boundaries and are a good way to group together producers working on similar environmental issues”. However, while working on all watersheds to solve environmental issues related to agriculture may indeed be sensible, this is really a ruse to limit allocations to certain watersheds and thus excluding many great conservation farmers and ranchers from participating. Thus, where you live will matter much more than your conservation effort. Also, given the incredibly complex system of picking “priority” watersheds announced by USDA, it appears that very few of the really best conservation farmers and ranchers will be rewarded and instead we have a program supporting mediocrity. We will be spending $38 million dollars before October of this year to reward not the best of the best, but the so-so average.

Next fiscal year the President has asked for $208 million to continue the CSP and the Congress has affirmed its desire to maintain CSP as a fully-funded national entitlement for all eligible farmers and ranchers. Why can’t the OMB and USDA bureaucracies listen at least to the President and Congress if not to 18,000 leading concerned citizens? If we want healthy fish, rivers, food and people, we need to support the farmers and ranchers best capable of providing it and hopefully get those who aren’t to follow in their lead. This is broad public self-interest.

Call the President, call your congressional delegation, call the Secretary of Agriculture and demand an end to the war between environment and agriculture by supporting a fully funded Conservation Security Program that doesn’t exclude most deserving farmers and ranchers from participating. The CSP need to be implemented in accordance to the law as passed by Congress and signed by the President.

_____________________________________ Jeff Schaczenski, welcomes your comments. He can be reached at 406-494-8636 or wsawg@ncat.org. More information about the Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group can be found on-line at http://www.westernsawg.org .