updated 6/10/2004 3:59:10 PM ET 2004-06-10T19:59:10

Farmers and ranchers in 22 states can start signing up July 6 for a program that pays them to protect and improve natural resources, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.

The Conservation Security Program will be available for producers in 18 watersheds, the department said. They will have until July 30 to seek a share of the program’s $41.4 million.

The money will help producers cover costs in using environmentally friendly practices in managing soil, water, nutrients and pesticides.

The eligible watersheds in this year’s program are: Raystown (Pennsylvania); Saluda (South Carolina); Little (Georgia); St. Joseph (Michigan, Indiana and Ohio); Auglaize (Indiana and Ohio); Blue Earth (Minnesota and Iowa); Lower Chippewa (Wisconsin); Kishwaukee (Illinois and Wisconsin); Little River Ditches (Missouri and Arkansas); Lower Yellowstone (Montana and North Dakota); East Nishnabotna (Iowa); Lower Little Blue (Nebraska and Kansas); Lower Salt Fork Arkansas (Oklahoma and Kansas); Punta de Agua (New Mexico and Texas); Hondo (Texas); Moses Coulee (Washington); Lemhi (Idaho); and Umatilla (Oregon).

The department will consider what producers have been doing with their land, including the condition of the soil, and what they plan to do if they get a program contract.

The department said the money available for the 2004 budget year would allow as man as 5,000 producers to enroll. It said it would rotate the program into other watersheds in future years, so other producers could sign up.

Critics said the 2002 farm bill intended for far more participation than the department is allowing.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the department has taken a first step by getting the program started, but that producers and conservationists will be disappointed.

Program details are online at www.nrcs.usda.gov/news/index.html#csp0604.

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