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NRCS official says conservation wins big in 2008 Farm Bill

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The 2008 Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that was difficult to work into law, but ultimately it will prove to be a great benefit to agriculture in general and conservation specifically.

Bill Hunt, State Conservationist for Minnesota's Natural Resource Conservation Service spoke Tuesday at the ARS Soils Lab in Morris.

The negotiations made it a "calamitous year" for NRCS and other agencies, but that the big winners in the Farm Bill's passage were conservation, food, energy and nutrition, Hunt said.

"This is a very, very good Farm Bill in terms of conservation," he said.

The Farm Bill was passed by the U.S. Senate and Congress in May. The bill was vetoed by President Bush, but that veto was overturned overwhelmingly by lawmakers.

The bill calls for several changes, most of which benefit land owners who are or want to get more acreage involved in conservation programs, Hunt said.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, already a popular program, has been expanded. The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, popular with outdoors and hunting groups, has been continued at or above previous levels. And the bill also expands provisions of the Agriculture Management Assistance Program.

The bill also established the Conservation Stewardship Program, which will eventually supplant the Conservation Security Program.

Conservation Security Program contracts will continue, but no new contracts will be offered. The bill set a 12.8 million acre enrollment in the new Conservation Stewardship Program.

About $26 million will be invested in Minnesota's EQIP program, and a 50 percent cost share makes about $52 million available. EQIP offers incentives to lower water use, less the impact of animal production, establish air quality practices, assist the transition to organic practices, and offers incentives aimed at new farmers and ranchers. EQIP will make it possible to make advance payments up to 30 percent to establish conservation practices and has a 90 percent cost share.

WHIP will have between $400,000 and $1.2 million available through the new bill, Hunt said.

The bill, however, does mandate lower per-person payout limits to individual landowners, he said.

Hunt also asked the Soils Lab staff to make use of another initiative in the bill, Conservation Innovation Grants, which provides funding to researchers working on the cutting edge of conservation practices.

"Teach us something we don't know," Hunt said. "There's a lot we don't know."

While not an NRCS program, Hunt predicted that the Conservation Reserve Program would continue to lose acres to production as crop prices rise along with the expense for fuel and inputs.