Groups give Senate farm bill thumbs-up

Associate Editor

Washington, D.C. The U.S. Senate last week passed a farm bill
generally considered favorable by conservation groups. Conservation
programs, including the popular Conservation Reserve Program, are a
large piece of the federal farm bill pie.

According to Dave Nomsen, director of governmental affairs for
Pheasants Forever, the Senate bill could provide up to $11.8
billion in new funding for conservation during the next five years.
And it increases a number of programs conservation groups put at
the forefront of their efforts CRP, the Wetland Reserve Program
(WRP), and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP).

Within the next few weeks, conferees from both the Senate and
House will meet to consolidate two versions of a farm bill into
one, which will be sent to President George W. Bush for
approval.

“The good news is, there are strong (conservation) bills on both
sides,” Nomsen said. “It will be a lot easier to conference the
conservation issues than the commodities issues (of the farm
bill).”

The most controversial discrepancy is a Senate limit on the
payments a farmer can receive. The new $275,000 cap, which is not
in the House bill, would affect about 70 farm operations in
Minnesota. Minnesota has more than 102,000 recipients of federal
farm subsidies who received $4.5 billion from 1996 through 2000,
the last year for which data are available.

The Senate bill, which passed 58-40, authorizes $45 billion in
new farm spending nationwide over the next five years, a 27-percent
increase. Both the House and Senate versions call for $73.5 billion
in new farm spending over 10 years. But the House bill limits
spending to $38 billion in the first five years conforming to
spending limits endorsed by President Bush.

Conservation leaders expect a sense of urgency when conferees
meet.

“They want to get done in time to apply (the bill) to the 02
crop year,” Nomsen said.

While that’s a few months away in the Midwest, southern farmers
are getting their field equipment ready now.

“People want to get this done fast,” said Dave Gagner,
governmental affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited in
Washington. “They’ll be planting very soon within weeks in the
south. If this goes into April, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

While the entire roll of Senate and House conferees hasn’t been
made official, it’s expected Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson
will be among the House contingent.

Nomsen said Minnesota senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton
helped make the Senate farm bill one in which conservation was a
centerpiece.

“Both offices were very active,” he said.

Some of the provisions of the Senate farm bill included:

CRP. The cap for eligible acreage under CRP would be increased
from 36.4 million acres to 40 million acres under the Senate bill.
The House bill would increase the acreage amount to just over 39
million acres.

WRP. The Senate bill would allow 250,000 acres to be enrolled
annually through 2006 to a cap of 1.25 million, Nomsen said. The
House bill calls for an increase of 150,000 acres annually.

WHIP. Both the Senate and House versions allow this program to
increase its funding incrementally. However, Nomsen said the Senate
version could allocate about $1.23 billion to the program over the
life of the bill, while the House version amounts to about $155
million.

Grassland Reserve Program. Both the Senate and the House create
a new Grassland Reserve Program that would put up to 2 million
acres in conservation reserves.

The details of the Senate language are more favorable, Gagner
said.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program. According to Nomsen,
the Senate bill provides slightly more funding ($6.2 billion) for
this program than does the House version ($5.9 billion).

The Senate bill also has a Conservation Security Program,
something not contained in the House bill. The CSP is meant to
provide incentive payments to all farmers for maintaining and
adopting conservation practices on private, working lands.
Eligibility covers all agricultural lands.

“This is the sleeper in the whole thing,” Nomsen said. “The
program has great potential for pheasants and other wildlife. It
targets all farms and encourages practices that are beneficial to
wildlife.

“But it’s expensive and could be one of the more challenging
issues for conferees.”

While Nomsen said the Senate bill in the realm of conservation
trumps its House counterpart, both bills are good for conservation
and lend themselves to a favorable final version following
conference.

“We like more of the program language in the Senate, but the
House bill set a nice floor for us,” he said. “It set the tone and
we’re positioned well in the conference to come out with a nice
package.”

Other issues, including the $275,000 subsidies cap, are likely
to hinder the conference process. Another is what Bush considers
“front-loading” of the Senate spending package.

One of Bush’s top priorities, the creation of special subsidized
savings accounts for farmers, a cornerstone of Canadian farm
policy, was soundly rejected by the Senate, 80-17.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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