Unless you were hiding under a rock this winter — or behind layers of duct tape and plastic — you've no doubt heard about the new conservation title of the latest farm bill. In some cases, you've probably heard it described in glowing terms, such as the beginning of the “golden age” of conservation, or the “most significant commitment towards the conservation of private lands in the history of the United States.”

And if the measure of a conservation title is made strictly in dollars, there might be some truth to the claims. It's estimated that $18 billion was allocated for conservation programs over the life of the 2002 farm bill, the largest in the history of farm bills. President Bush has proposed a record $3.9 billion for conservation for fiscal year 2004, and increase of $582 million over the previous year's funding.

Nearly $3.5 billion of the President's proposal will be used for financial assistance or other direct payments to farmers, including $2 billion for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), $850 million for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), $250 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), $112 million for the Farmland Protection Program (FPP), $85 million for the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and $42 million for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). All of these funding levels represent significant increases over the 2003 budget.

The budget further insures that all cost-share and technical assistance for conservation work authorized by the 2002 farm bill for fiscal year 2004 will be delivered.

All of this sounds very encouraging, and it leads one to ask why more farmers don't participate in government conservation programs.

To get a better understanding of farmers' attitudes toward conservation programs, a survey was conducted this past fall of Georgia county Extension agents. The one-page survey form asked these agents to indicate why more farmers in their respective counties did not participate in conservation programs.

The questions were divided into three types of reasons: 1) Inadequate information; 2) Participation costs; and 3) Participation benefits. The four programs mentioned in the survey included CRP, EQIP, WHIP and GRP. Approximately 50 agents responded.

The agents reported that the latter two programs — WHIP and GRP — received little response, with most farmers stating there was little or no information available about the programs.

For CRP, the top five reasons for not participating included: 1) Reduces future farm management flexibility; 2) Don't know program exists; 3) Don't know if they are eligible; 4) Don't know enrollment procedures; and 5) Too much paperwork.

The top three reasons for not participating in EQIP were: 1) Don't know program exists; 2) Don't know if they are eligible; and 3) Out-of-pocket costs too high.

Several county agents took the time to explain the attitudes of their farmers. Here's a sampling:

  • “Most of the farm bill attention is directed toward commodity programs. If the conservation programs are legislated to conserve the various natural resources of eligible farmers, then additional efforts should be directed toward more adequate publicity of the different conservation programs.”

  • “The reason there aren't more participants in the programs — especially WHIP and EQIP — is that there is not enough money. For example, if $100,000 is appropriated to a program and there are 2,000 applicants, how much money does that provide? They rank the applicants and maybe only 200 get funded. The rest get nothing.”

  • “EQIP was given a big buildup. Many farmers had applications or farm plans developed, and then there was not enough money even for those who ranked highest in the program. After several attempts, some of my farmers told me they could find better ways to waste their time.”

Two major conclusions were reached from this survey. First, there are few educational materials available to explain these programs purpose, eligibility, costs and benefits (short and long-term). Second, appropriations are not always certain and may come at various times.

Let's hope some of the billions of dollars in new conservation funds will be used to address these concerns.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com