Six more farmers may lose out on a new federal program that pays for environmental stewardship, bringing to 21 the number of Eastern Washington grain farmers suspected of possibly gaming the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The federal agency administers the Conservation Security Program, an initiative with broad support when it was created by the 2002 Farm Bill. The program is designed to reward farmers who are practicing the sort of agriculture — such as limited use of pesticides and fertilizers — lauded by the public and politicians alike.
State Conservationist Gus Hughbanks vowed earlier this year to investigate the problem after reviews determined that perhaps 15 farmers may have altered soil samples and submitted false information.
The NRCS will not release the names of the farmers until its own administrative reviews and an inquiry by the Office of the Inspector General is done. More farmers may be implicated as the ongoing reviews continue.
Last year, 146 farmers in Spokane, Whitman, Lincoln, Grant and Adams counties participated in the taxpayer-funded program, collecting a total of $2.7 million.
Of the 15 farmers who initially received NRCS letters of “intent to terminate contracts,” all but one have appealed. One farmer has repaid the money. The six farmers who recently ran afoul of program’s guidelines also have appealed, Hughbanks said.
If the farmers are found to have cheated the program, they could be forced to repay the money with interest and face other administrative consequences.
Farmers send in the results of soil sampling done by outside labs as part of their application for the federal subsidy, which netted participating farmers an average of $18,691 last year.
The Conservation Security Program differs from the decades old, better-known Conservation Reserve Program, which paid $78 million to farmers in 2005.
The Conservation Reserve Program is run by the Farm Service Agency and pays farmers to not plant crops on fields. In Washington State this program has been effective in curbing erosion and restoring wildlife habitat. But it has come under fire by rural communities that worry idling up to 25 percent of a county’s farmland hurts businesses and tax collections.