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Budget may squeeze conservation programs for NY farmers


WASHINGTON — Record grain prices are leading the nation’s farmers to put idled land back into production — but in New York, land that’s already producing is catching the attention of conservationists.

New York lawmakers and farm groups hope more farms will enroll in programs that help farmers protect their land and watersheds while staying in production, but they are pressing against cost-cutting realities of the next farm bill.

The New Yorkers are touting two programs geared toward smaller farms but which tend to be footnotes to the much bigger Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers mostly in the Midwest to take land out of production and plant soil-saving covers such as grass which may not be mowed or used for grazing.

In the north country, officials are concerned about protecting the Lake Ontario, Black River and St. Lawrence River watersheds, among others, while encouraging the region’s dairy production — the economic engine of the region’s farm economy.

At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday on conservation programs in the next five-year farm bill, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., urged greater funding for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which she said involves nearly 500 farms covering 70,000 acres in the state.

That program is by far the most heavily used conservation program in New York, sharing costs with state and local government to help farmers craft plans that prevent soil erosion and excessive runoff of nutrients into watersheds. Far more farmers apply than the program can enroll, said Matt Nelligan, a spokesman for New York Farm Bureau.

Mrs. Gillibrand also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to suggest ways to enroll more New York farmers in the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers annually for management practices already in place that protect the land and watersheds.

The congressional Agriculture committees will draft two versions of a farm bill this year, aiming to complete a compromise by the end of September, when current programs end. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she supports consolidating and simplifying conservation programs. Lawmakers also face pressure to pare down the Conservation Reserve Program and use savings to boost other programs such as EQIP.

Some scaling back of the CRP seems imminent without government incentive, as Midwest farms face a decision whether to re-enroll or plant grains and oilseeds that are attracting high prices.

About 68,000 CRP contracts are about to expire, covering 6.5 million acres, the USDA reported.

New York has about 3,600 acres statewide eligible to come out of the program this year, the USDA reported.

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