From: Charles Abbott, Reuters
Published July 31, 2006 12:00 AM

USDA Sees $10 Billion Cost for Farm Stewardship Plan

WASHINGTON — The infant "green" payment program that rewards stewardship of U.S. farm and ranchland would cost a hefty $9 billion-$10 billion a year if offered nationwide, its Agriculture Department overseer said.

At that level, Conservation Security Program spending would be a huge part of the farm program, which already averages $20 billion a year in payments. CSP, created under the 2002 farm law, was allotted $259 million this fiscal year and is offered in 300 watersheds, a small fraction of U.S. territory.

The USDA estimate was disputed as vastly too high. Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an activist group, said in an interview the White House and congressional budget offices put the cost at $1 billion a year.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey gave his estimate at a House Agriculture subcommittee review of USDA stewardship programs. Subcommittee chairman Frank Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, asked Rey to repeat if $9 billion-$10 billion a year was the proper figure.

"Correct," Rey responded. "That assumes we implement it in the fashion of current legislation."

CSP has attracted wide interest in farm country and often is cited as a possible new path for U.S. farm supports that would comply with world trade rules. It pays farmers who make water, land and wildlife conservation part of their daily operations.

Congress has raided the CSP funding repeatedly to pay for other programs. As a result, USDA has offered the program in a limited number of watersheds each year. "Most working agricultural land is eligible for CSP," Rey said.

But most land would not qualify, said Hoefner, because tracts often have too much soil erosion and runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen. Those thresholds will limit the cost, he said.

Bill Wilson, head of the National Association of Conservation Districts, said CSP has become "an extremely targeted program with complex implementation" that is too much trouble for some growers to pursue.

The National Association of Wheat Growers said it wanted "all conservation programs, and particularly CSP, adequately funded" and urged removal of barriers to CSP participation, such as the current approach of offering it in a small number of watersheds at a time.

Rey said 19,200 CSP contracts were in force on 14.6 million acres at an annual average cost of $11,000 although payments range from $500 to $45,000.

Source: Reuters

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