Three Eastern Shore Maryland farm operations face repaying thousands of dollars to USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service for Conservation Security Program payments. That's because USDA's National Appeals Division rejected their appeal, despite that they were misled about their eligibility for CSP contracts by USDA employees.
The farm operators collectively facing repayment of close to $1 million are Sonny Eaton of Queen Anne's County and Mike Elben and the Hutchison brothers of Talbot County. This, after State Conservationist Jon Hall assured them in 2010 that they acted in good faith.
Yesterday, Maryland Ag Secretary Buddy Hance released a statement in support of the farmers. "We are deeply disappointed by the USDA appeal determination.
"If you read the appeal decisions, USDA acknowledges that these farmers were eligible to participate in the CSP program," noted Hance. USDA acknowledges that staff at the state and national levels misled them by advising that they were eligible to participate in the program and erred by awarding them separate CSP contracts. The decisions also find that the three operations have fully implemented all items in their CSP contracts.
Eaton, Elben and the Hutchisons fulfilled their conservation obligations for the program, added Hance. "In all fairness to the farmers, we hope that the director [of the Appeals Division] will do the right thing, review the facts more closely and find in favor of the farmers."
The CSP program, now called Conservation Stewardship Program, was established under the 2002 Farm Bill. Its goal was and is to reward farmers for conservation practice that reward environmental performance rather than prescriptive practices.CSP participants can earn up to $40,000 a year to actively manage and maintain existing and new conservation systems. Compensation is based on clearly defined conservation conditions and environmental improvements.