Farmers in south-central Pennsylvania will be the first in the region to participate, starting in July, in a new conservation program designed to reward increasing levels of environmental performance.

The Raystown watershed was one of 18 watersheds selected by the U.S Department Agriculture for the first enrollment into the Conservation Security Program, which was created as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. The Raystown watershed suffers from high levels of nitrogen—a problem created primarily by polluted runoff from neighboring farms.

Now, farmers in the watershed will be eligible for as much as $45,000 annually if they meet USDA soil and water quality standards and take other steps to improve the environment.

The CSP was designed to be an entitlement program—that is, farmers will be automatically eligible for funding if they meet certain environmental standards, and will receive more funding as their environmental performance increases. The program will, in the words of USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, “reward the best and motivate the rest.”

How many farmers in the Raystown watershed will be eligible and how much they’ll be paid remains unclear. The program is a dramatic departure from traditional conservation programs, which shared the cost of a wide variety of land management practices. Payments were generally linked to labor and equipment costs, not environmental performance.

Now, farmers will be paid more if they produce more environmental benefits—or if their farm is already meeting high environmental standards.

Theoretically, all working agricultural land (and even some adjacent forestland) will be eligible for the CSP. Producers on cropland, orchards, vineyards, pasture and range may apply for the program, regardless of size, type of operation or crops produced.

But, congressional appropriators capped program spending for fiscal year 2004, which ends in September, at $41 million to allocate funds to other USDA programs. That forced USDA officials to limit the program to 3,000 to 5,000 farmers in 18 watersheds, many of which are in the Midwest and Great Plains.

A House appropriations subcommittee has placed a cap on the program again for fiscal year 2005, but a coalition of senators led by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-IA, and Gordon Smith, R-OR, have vowed to make the program available to all farmers who qualify.

This summer, farmers will be eligible for three payment tiers linked to how much of their farm they enroll and how much they do to benefit the environment. Payments for the three tiers are capped at $20,000, $35,000 and $45,000 annually and will last for five years for Tier I and five to 10 years for Tier II and Tier III.

To satisfy Tier I, farmers must meet minimum standards for water and soil quality established by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service on part of their farm. The standards require the implementation of certain practices, including tillage practices, crop rotations and the installation of filter strips of grasses and trees.

To meet Tier II, farmers must meet these standards for the entire farm and agree to meet an additional “resources of concern” by the end of their contract, such as benefiting wildlife or improving air quality.

To meet Tier III, farmers must meet NRCS standards for all “resources of concern” on their farm and agree to additional enhancement activities.

Payments can include four components: an annual stewardship component for the benchmark conservation treatment; an annual component for the maintenance of existing conservation practices; a one-time new practice component for specific additional needed practices; and an enhancement component for exceptional conservation effort.

The NRCS will develop a list of specific practices eligible for these enhancement payments, and will link these payments to increasing the level of environmental performance over and above the minimum criteria set for eligibility in the program.

Enhancement payments could also be made for addressing a local priority, implementing an on-farm demonstration project, cooperating with other farmers in the same watershed or monitoring water quality.

While some farm and conservation organizations were pleased that the rule issued by the USDA last month increased the payments farmers would receive for meeting the basic requirements of each tier, the same groups were disappointed that the USDA reduced federal cost-sharing for new practices from 75 percent to 50 percent. They also protested a new provision that limits enhanced payments for outstanding environmental performance to not more than 40 percent, 25 percent, and 15 percent of local land rental rates for Tier III, II, and I participants, respectively.

“The new rule takes one step forward and two steps back on payment rates,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Consistent with the proposed rule, the administration helpfully aims to make the CSP the most environmentally demanding program in the history of USDA conservation efforts, but then wants to do it without reasonable incentives. This will be a very tough sell in farm country.”

The other watersheds selected for enrollment this summer are the Saluda in South Carolina; Little in Georgia; St. Joseph in Michigan; Auglaize in Indiana; Blue Earth in Minnesota; Lower Chippewa in Wisconsin; Kishwaukee in Illinois; Little River Ditches in Missouri; Lower Yellowstone in Montana; East Nishnabotna in Iowa; Lower Little Blue in Nebraska; Lower Salt Fork in Oklahoma; Punta de Agua in New Mexico; Hondo in Texas; Moses Coulee in Washington; Lemhi in Idaho; and the Umatilla in Oregon.

The program will be offered each year, on a rotational basis, in as many watersheds as funding allows.

Over time, the USDA hopes to offer the program to farmers in all watersheds. But, the agency cited financial—as well as administrative and statutory obstacles—to offering the CSP to all farmers this summer.

In particular, officials cited Farm Bill limits on the amount of money the agency can spend on technical assistance—just 15 percent of program funds.

Officials note that using watersheds as administrative units, rather than counties, will allow program administrators to measure the success of conservation practices.