Limited Access to Conservation: Limited-Resource Farmer Participation in the Conservation Security Program in the Southeast

Article excerpt

The paper examines the joint adoption of conservation tillage, crop rotations, and soil testing by small and limited-resource farmers in the Southeast. The objectives are to determine the potential eligibility of small farmers for the Conservation Security Program, examine socioeconomic factors affecting adoption, and assess the interdependence between adopting different conservation practices. Results indicate that conservation management, ethnicity, and farm characteristics affect practice adoption. Of the producers surveyed in the study, 7% meet Conservation Security Program eligibility requirements, while the other 93% have less than a 20% likelihood of adopting the needed practices to qualify.

Key Words: adoption, conservation, Conservation Security Program, conservation tillage, limited-resource farmers, logistic regression, small farms, soil testing

JEL Classifications: C35, Q 12, Q58

The National Commission on Small Farms, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (1998) outlined a vision for small farms in the 21st Century that emphasized the need for the adoption of sustainable agriculture as a profitable, ecologically, and socially sound strategy for small farms. The report highlighted that the majority of farms are less than 180 acres in size and control a significant percentage of farmland, which could provide significant environmental benefit through proper management of soil, water, and wildlife.1 The 2002 Farm Bill created the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a voluntary conservation entitlement program that pays farmers who have met prescribed natural resource stewardship guidelines (i.e., for soil, water, air, energy, plant, and animal life) established by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to maintain and enhance conservation practices on their land (NRCS, 2004).2 The CSP was designed to motivate farmers to intensify their conservation efforts and encourage other farmers to adopt similar conservation practices in order to become eligible. Thus, the CSP could provide a mechanism for small and limited-resource farmers to improve natural resource management and environmental stewardship in the Southeast. The program was initiated in select watersheds in 2004, but has only been offered in additional select watersheds to date, due to funding restrictions (Pease, Schweikhardt, and Seidl, 2008).

By primarily rewarding past conservation efforts, the CSP has been limited in its ability (using monetary incentives) to intensify onfarm conservation efforts (Cox, 2007). The Food, Conservation and Energy Act (Farm Bill) of 2008 may help alleviate some of the shortcomings of the original program. The new legislation rechristens the CSP as the Conservation Stewardship Program3; doubles funding levels; streamlines eligibility requirements; does away with the tiered system; and sets an enrollment goal of approximately 13 million acres per year (Pease, Schweikhardt, and Seidl, 2008).4 Thus, the CSP may still provide a potential resource for small and limited-resource farmers, if they can qualify. Conservation contract selection under the CSP will be based on a farmer's current conservation efforts, willingness to intensify conservation on-farm, and level of willingness to accept compensation for these efforts (similar to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)) (U.S. House, 2008).

The CSP does not restrict participation based on size of farm or by crop or livestock produced, given that many small and limitedresource farms raise livestock and produce specialty crops. As over three-fourths of the farms in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi are small and limited-resource farms, the opportunity exists to increase participation in conservation programs and improve environmental stewardship (Molnar, Bitto, and Brant, 2001; NRCS, 2004). Eligibility requirements for the CSP may be a factor that limits participation. For example, in Alabama, row crop producers must: practice conservation tillage; use crop rotations; have prescribed grass waterways and terraces installed; soil test; utilize needed integrated pest management and crop nutrient management practices; and control eroded areas in their fields for at least a 2-year period (NRCS, 2008). …