Senate continues to mull 2007 Farm Bill

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

Washington – Members of the U.S. Senate may not pass a
far-ranging Farm Bill before the current five-year plan expires at
the end of this month, but many conservation groups expect a bill
to be passed in the near future.

Two months ago, the House passed a $286 billion measure that
included $25 billion for conservation programs, including the
popular Conservation Reserve Program, for the next five years – but
had a number of shortcomings, according to those same conservation
groups.

‘The Senate is trying to make headway,’ the Theodore Roosevelt
Conservation Partnership’s Geoff Mullins said. ‘We’re hearing
different things at this point.

‘Slowing down the process is the money factor, and the budget is
tight,’ he said.

Should a new Farm Bill not pass by the end of the month – when
the 2002 Farm Bill expires – most conservation and other Farm Bill
programs likely would be kept afloat by ‘continuing resolutions’
that would keep the programs operating at their current levels.

While that might help most conservation programs get by until a
new bill is passed, two programs – the Wetland Reserve Program and
the Grassland Reserve Program – might suffer. Brad Redlin, director
of agricultural programs for the Izaak Walton League of America,
said no new funding for WRP and GRP would cause those programs to
expire. If a Farm Bill is passed shortly thereafter, a signup
period could be held at a later date, but if six months or so are
allowed to pass, USDA staff dedicated to those programs could be
laid off, jeopardizing the programs.

Redlin said the Ike Walton League is encouraging the Senate to
better provide for programs like the Conservation Security Program,
which took a hit in the House bill. Redlin said Sen. Tom Harkin,
D-Iowa, chair of the Senate Ag Committee, has a ‘personal stake’ in
CSP, and may attempt to strengthen the program, or perhaps simplify
and combine it with another program – the Environmental Quality
Incentives Program, which cost-shares with farmers and ranchers for
installing conservation measures. CSP rewards farmers and ranchers
for conservation-friendly practices on their working land.

The Izaak Walton League recommends the Senate consider a
‘Comprehensive Stewardship Incentives Program’ – a combination of
EQIP and CSP – ‘as an innovative approach to conservation on
agricultural lands that delivers real on-the-ground benefits.’

For example, the groups says, the program would include
‘ensuring environmental benefits from EQIP by reforming excessive
subsidies for livestock factories’ and ‘increasing economic
opportunity for rural America.’

Capping commodity payments, Redlin said, would allow Congress to
invest the savings in conservation, which research has shown –
including that of the USDA – increases jobs and the population of
rural areas, increases the number of farms, and improves rural
economies.

Redlin said another upgrade from the House Farm Bill would be a
stronger ‘Sodsaver’ provision. According to the Ikes, Sodsaver
‘specifies that any land without a prior cropping history that’s
converted to crop production will be ineligible for all Farm Bill
program payments’ including commodity payments, crop insurance, and
disaster payments.

The House bill would allow for deficiency payments (crop
subsidies), and insurance and disaster payments after four years of
production.

Redlin said the Ikes also believes it’s important to more
effectively regulate those who violate the provisions of federal
conservation programs contracts. Too often, he said,
conservationists from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation
Service cite landowners for violations, only to have those
violations overturned in an appeals process, conducted locally. The
Ike Walton League believes such reviews should be conducted at the
state level.

Rumors persist about conservation program funding methods,
including one topic of discussion that would convert payments for
programs such as WRP and GRP to a system of tax credits.

‘That might sound great for absentee landowners,’ Redlin said.
‘But for the typical farmer and the nature of the business, a big
income isn’t shown every year. We’re concerned about that; we don’t
need to make a program less appealing.’

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