Growers have begun signing up for the Conservation Reserve Program at their local USDA county service center, according to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.

She also announced that USDA is releasing about $1.8 billion in funding for other conservation programs including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

According to a state-by-state breakdown provided by USDA, individual states will each receive somewhere between $733,000 and $69 million in financial and technical assistance from the recently announced funding. Among the Sunbelt states, Texas and California top the list of Natural Resource Conservation Service conservation funding recipients receiving $130.9 million and $98.2 million, respectively.

In the Southeast, Florida tops the list with $53.3 million, followed by Georgia with $41.9 million, Alabama with $29 million, North Carolina with $38 million, South Carolina with $28.1 million, and Virginia with $25.5 million.

“America's farmers and ranchers have made great strides to improve the environment, and this administration is committed to assisting their ongoing stewardship efforts to enhance soil, water and air,” Veneman said. “These announcements highlight the importance that President Bush places on a strong environmental policy that is compatible with a growing, healthy economy. His 2004 budget includes a record $3.9 billion for conservation on our nation's farmlands, which is more than double the funding level when he came into office.”

The general sign-up for CRP, which is in addition to CRP's ongoing continuous sign-up program, will continue through May 30. Current program participants with contracts expiring this fall can make new contract offers during the sign-up period.

According to Veneman, only one other general sign-up for CRP will be offered before the current farm program expires in 2007.

The Conservation Reserve Program pays landowners annual rental payments, and a payment of up to 50 percent of the cost of establishing conservation practices, in exchange for enrolling environmentally sensitive land into the program and out of agricultural production. Acreage enrolled in the program is then planted to resource-conserving vegetative covers, making the program a major contributor to increases in wildlife populations, Veneman says.

The 2002 farm bill authorized USDA to maintain CRP enrollment up to 39.2 million acres, with USDA reserving two million acres of that total for the most environmentally desirable and sensitive land targeted with the continuous sign-up program. All new CRP contracts will become effective either Oct. 1, 2003, or Oct. 1, 2004, whichever the producer chooses.