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Conservation grants to reward environmentally savvy farmers
By ANN HINCH
Tennessee Correspondent

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most government incentive programs for farmers are designed to help pay for a change of some sort; not many reward effort already put forth and financed.

This is what sets the annual Conservation Security Program (CSP) apart from the multitude of other USDA grant opportunities. First offered in 2004, the CSP annually rewards farmers in selected watershed regions for being good conservationist stewards of their own land.

“All of our other programs are fix-it type programs,” pointed out John Rissler, assistant state conservationist for USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Tennessee. “Some producers come in and say, ‘I don’t qualify for any of your programs because I’ve already done that.’”

Now, they might. Sign-ups for CSP consideration will take place at participating NRCS offices through March 31. Privately owned land currently enrolled in CSP covers nearly 11 million acres in 220 eligible watersheds in all 50 states and the Caribbean area; only 60 watersheds are eligible for 2006, cut in January from 110.

“It’s always coming back to funding,” Deena Wheby, Kentucky’s assistant state conservationist, said, explaining 110 was the number Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns wanted last August. When Congress approved the budget, though, only 60 “priority” watersheds were kept.

These two states share the Barren River Watershed at Kentucky’s southern border surrounding Allen County, which also reaches into Clay, Macon and Sumner counties in Tennessee. There are two other eligible watersheds in Tennessee – the Upper Elk River surrounding Moore County and Pickwick Lake, including Hardin, Lawrence and Wayne counties, and spreading across state lines into Alabama.

In Indiana, the eligible watersheds are Wildcat in the center of the state, around Tippecanoe County, and the Upper Great Miami in Randolph County, which is also located across the state line into Ohio, surrounding Miami County there.

The Upper Sangamon River Watershed in central Illinois, surrounding Macon County, is also on the list, as is the Maple River Watershed surrounding Clinton County in Michigan. In Iowa, the watersheds are South Skunk – sweeping through counties from Hamilton to Keokuk – and Grant-Little Maquoketa in Clayton and Dubuque counties (also shared with Wisconsin).

Rissler said there has been discussion about increasing the number of eligible watersheds later this year, though he has his doubts. “My crystal ball says no, but there is a chance,” he conceded.

To apply, a farmer must complete a self-assessment, which can be downloaded from http://csp.sc.egov.usda.gov

The majority of a landowner’s property in a watershed must be “working land,” according to Rissler – that is, supporting crops or used for irrigation or some other eligible purpose.

Wheby warned paperwork is involved and, among other things, farmers must meet certain soil and water quality standards as determined by NRCS scientists.

There are four ways a landowner may qualify for payments during a 5-10 year contract period. First, there’s a per-acre payment for a minimum level of current stewardship; there is also financial incentive to reward an existing conservation practice the farmer has in effect. Next is an enhancement reward for practices “above and beyond” the minimal requirements.

Finally – and least common – is a cost-share grant with a $10,000 cap for new practices to be instituted on a property. Wheby said most eligible landowners qualify for a combination of payment options.

She cited the example of a Kentucky farmer who, 10 years ago, easily qualified for programs to help improve poor agricultural and conservation practices. Over time, she said he has improved his farm greatly to the point where, last year, he qualified for CSP rewards instead.

“Not only did we give the guy money to fix things, we helped get him to be one of the best (stewards) in our area,” she said, adding CSP is also a great incentive for farmers who live in watersheds they believe may qualify for funding in the future.

Additional information about CSP is available from a local USDA service center or at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/csp/2006_CSP_WS/index.html

This farm news was published in the February 22, 2006 issue of Farm World.

2/22/2006