Any lingering illusions that Democratic control of the House would automatically lead to more enlightened agriculture policy crumbled last Thursday, when Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, released the conservation section of his 2007 Farm Bill proposal.

Peterson kicked off the 2007 Farm Bill reauthorization process — and in the process, kicked the legs out from under one of the country’s best agri-environmental programs.

By cutting funding for the Conservation Security Program in his proposal and freezing any new sign-ups until 2012, Chairman Peterson would essentially kill an innovative, green, and forward-looking program that has been lauded by many environmental, family farm, and sustainable food advocates.

And there’s limited time to stop him.

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Important to the ensuing farm bill debate and timeline, Chairman Peterson’s decision amounted to a calculated one-two punch to the face of his Senate counterpart, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Conservation Security Program’s biggest champion.

Luckily, neither Harkin nor CSP proponents in the House and Senate will let his baby go gently into that good night. With Peterson’s decision to kill CSP likely to bring about significant amendments on the floor of the House, the chairmen’s earlier promise to work together and expeditiously initiate meaningful farm policy reform isn’t worth a hill of soybeans.

As the first and only federal program to reward good stewardship and conservation on land in agricultural production, the Conservation Security Program should be the prize heifer at the 4H show.

Instead, it’s been an ugly duckling. More than $4 billion has been pilfered from its coffers by Congressional appropriators since it was first authorized in 2002, leaving it a stunted version of what it could have been.

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Rather than being available, as mandated, to every eligible farmer in the country, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has been forced by scarce funds to implement it in select watersheds (only 13 percent of all 2,118 watersheds in the country have had a CSP sign-up).

Where it has been available, farmers enrolled in CSP have been wildly enthusiastic, planting native grasses, adding winter cover and field windbreaks, practicing reduced tillage, and eliminating fall nitrogen applications. If fully funded, such practices would surely become more commonplace. Moreover, many see the CSP as the green-payment alternative that can also help wean producers off environmentally and socially destructive commodity payments.

In a perverse attempt to “bolster conservation” in the farm bill, Chairman Peterson wants to gut the CSP and hand the proceeds to another program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

In navigating through the alphabet soup of farm policy programs, there is a critical distinction to remember: EQIP is an important conservation cost share program that helps producers address environmental problems, but it also has some major limitations.

In 2002 it was modified to allocate 60 percent of its cost share funds to livestock production, with a significant portion going to subsidize the development and expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

For the uninitiated, CAFOs are factory farms that confine tens to hundreds of thousands of animals. As one can imagine, these factories generate so much manure, the liquid sludge sits in massive “lagoons” with nowhere to go.

The air and water pollution from these facilities is so bad, in 2003 the American Public Health Association called for a moratorium on any new construction of CAFOs. But despite protests from the public health as well as environmental and animal rights communities, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars (EQIP funding) have continued to pay for construction of lagoons, equipment for effluent sprayfields, and other waste storage and handling facilities.

In other words, you foot much of the the bill for the disgusting messes created by the feedlot meat industry.

And Peterson wants even more of your money for that purpose. The chairman’s proposal would double funding for EQIP by taking from CSP and retain a funding limit of $450,000 for any one producer.

Many of us have been waiting for this year’s farm bill reauthorization to turn things around, but Thursday’s announcement demonstrates the kind of struggle before us: not only does the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee advocate for more taxpayer money going toward a style of agriculture that has negative environmental and social impacts, he does so by taking from a program that actually fosters environmental benefits.

On Tuesday, May 22, the subcommittee on conservation, credit, energy, and research meets to amend and vote on the Chairman’s proposal: the time is now to contact them and ask them to stand and voice their support for CSP and reject Rep. Peterson’s proposal.