Bush seeks record $3.9 bln USDA conservation funds
Author: Charles Abbott
In a speech to farmers, ranchers and feedlot operators, Veneman listed spending increases for almost every major conservation program under her control. The biggest rise would be in a program to control manure and farm field run-off.
The new money flows from the farm policy law passed by Congress last year, which called for an 80 percent increase in conservation spending over the next several years.
Bush will unveil his fiscal 2004 budget request for all federal departments next week.
"At first blush, it appears the administration is coming very close to keeping the promise made to conservation in the farm bill," said Craig Cox of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. "The devil is in the details."
Cox and Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said more information was needed on a $432 million account created by USDA to pay for "technical assistance" - expert advice - to producers about conservation work.
Hoefner said the administration deducted money from each conservation program, apparently to pay for technical assistance, yet "it doesn't nearly equal $432 million." He asked if USDA was trying to take money from other programs to make up the difference.
In recent days, Veneman also previewed funding increases in two areas beyond conservation. They are a record $797 million for food safety, and a record $4.77 billion for the popular Women, Infants and Children program that provides extra food for poor pregnant women, new mothers and children up to age 5.
"The president's budget will provide the resources to expand on the good work already being done" to prevent erosion and protect water purity, she told the Nationial Cattlemen's Beef Association convention in Nashville, Tennessee.
Producers would see $850 million in aid from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $255 million more than requested a year ago. EQIP shares the cost of equipment and tillage practices that limit manure and farm runoff.
Sixty percent of the money was earmarked for livestock. The cattle group and other livestock organizations pressed for larger EQIP funding to counter-balance their expenses to satisfy new federal rules that will require large livestock farms to obtain water pollution permits and curtail runoff.
Proposed rules for operating the expanded EQIP also were released last week.
Under the new farm law, all livestock operations are eligible for EQIP though there is a $450,000 limit per farmer on benefits through 2007.
Veneman said a comparatively short 30-day period was set for public comment on the rules so they could go into effect as soon as possible and expanded funding could be released.
Proposed funding for other major conservation programs, Veneman said, would be:
- $2 billion for the land-idling Conservation Reserve, a rise of $140 million from this year. Farmers are paid an annual rent to idle fragile land on the reserve, authorized to expand to 39.2 million acres. The cap had been 36.4 million acres.
- $250 million to enroll 178,000 acres in the Wetlands Reserve, which pays farmers to preserve or restore wetlands.
- $112 million for the Farmland Protection Program, which works with states to prevent urban sprawl, an increase of $27 million.
- $85 million for the new Grassland Reserve, which protects grass and rangeland, a $13 million increase.
- $42 million for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which shares the cost of improving wildlife habitat, an increase of $16 million.
- $19 million for the new Conservation Security Program, which rewards producers for strengthening land, water and wildlife conservation.