Schafer Adds More Confusion to CRP Early-out Issue

Published on: 08:12AM Jul 18, 2008

By Jim Wiesemeyer
via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Says decision is 'imminent' but notes possible need for economic, enviro assessments

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I learned a long time ago to be very careful in using the word “imminent” when it comes to a government decision on anything. But that is the word USDA Ag Secretary Ed Schafer used on Thursday regarding the coming decision on whether or not to allow some Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) participants to exit their contracts without penalty. Schafer also added more than a dose of confusion to the issue on several other areas of this topic, as explained in this dispatch.

Another USDA snafu. A preliminary ruling, which came from U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle on Thursday, said there was a "strong likelihood" the plaintiffs will succeed in proving the Agriculture Department ignored environmental rules when it implemented a special haying and grazing program on CRP land. The judge ordered USDA and the groups that filed the lawsuit -- the National Wildlife Federation and six state affiliates -- to meet. For now, a temporary restraining order remains in place. They must report to the court by July 22.

Schafer's bombshell comments: "If the judge continues the temporary restraining order, it means we have to back off on our timetable because we'll have to take into consideration environmental impact statements," Schafer told reporters before the court decision was issued. "If we get into that we won't be doing any releasing of crop land for this year" from the CRP, Schafer said.

Schafer said that while a decision was "imminent," USDA must first deal with legal, economic and conservation wildlife issues. Confirming my reports earlier this week, Schafer said USDA has been in contact with the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) about the financial impact, the Council on Environmental Quality, along with wildlife groups and producers. He did not reveal Vice President Dick Cheney's interest in this topic....

My comments: Back off? From what? From USDA's apparent decision not to have a new economic and environmental assessment on any CRP early-out decision? When this matter first surfaced under then-USDA Secretary Mike Johanns, he and his public relations entourage insisted the necessary assessments were being done. But was work halted on the assessments when both Johanns and then Schafer decided not to follow the advice of their then Chief USDA Economist Keith Collins to offer an early-out option? It now appears USDA may well have halted work on those assessment reports. Jeez. A new group of lawyers is clearly needed at USDA.

Schafer added more confusion to the CRP early-out issue when he mentioned CRP acres “this year.” When the Ag Secretary is confused about these matters, it is no wonder why some traders and farmers are bewildered. There is no way any USDA decision on early-out for CRP would impact 2008-crop plantings. What it would impact is 2009-crop plantings beginning with this fall's seeding of winter wheat and other small grains.

On the common sense side, Schafer said there was productive land "sitting idle in the CRP." He also noted there has been a growing trend that as farmers come to the end of their contracts they are putting the land back into production rather than re-enrolling it in the reserve. "The question is, do we speed up that process a little bit in an effort to provide a greater yield or supply of commodity products where land is going to come out of the program anyway, or do we just wait and let the time course play out?" said Schafer. (Translation: can we punt on this issue like we really wanted to do but the Midwest floods forced us into looking at this issue yet again.)

Comments: Reading Schafer's not-so-constructive comments on this issue can lead to several possibilities, including cover for the Bush administration if they choose to punt on this issue and blame the court process and the obvious (but not to Schafer and his lawyers) need for new assessment reports that they knew or should have known long ago were needed. What is going on at USDA nowadays? A caretaker group is not taking care of business very well.

In a related matter, the two national farm groups -- the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union -- have no official policy on early-out for CRP acres. A major issue like this and no position from the leading farm groups?

An NFU spokeswoman told me, "NFU doesn't have a formal position. However, the board did discuss (this) at their last meeting and the general consensus was not in favor."

I have yet to receive an official response from the Farm Bureau.

Bottom line: Schafer and others in the Bush administration should stop talking about this issue and make a decision -- whatever it is. It is likely that the sheepish Bush group is waiting on the Seattle-based judge to decide, and could likely use his findings to set the parameters on any CRP early-out option.

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