Hopes fade for 2007 Farm Bill in Senate

Washington – Without agreement on several aspects of the 2007
Farm Bill, it appears likely the U.S. Senate won’t pass its version
of the far-ranging bill that includes a number of conservation
programs, until 2008 is well under way. That’s the feeling
expressed by a number of conservation leaders who’ve followed the
workings of the Senate as it considered the $286 billion bill.

A delay likely would have some effect on the programs included
in the Farm Bill – programs like the Conservation Reserve Program –
but it’s nothing new, according to Dave Nomsen, vice president of
governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever. Each of the previous
farm bills were passed by Congress the year after the existing bill
expired. The 2007 Farm Bill expired Sept. 30.

“Yes, it’s disappointing,” Nomsen said this week. “We were
hopeful we could get it done and (passed out of conference
committee) yet this year.”

The House passed its version of the Farm Bill earlier in
July.

“From a money standpoint, things could be worse if it’s
delayed,” he said. “Conservation doesn’t do well with extensions
and continuous delays.”

Luke Friedrich, a spokesman for Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman,
said, for now, the Senate bill is “in limbo.”

“The likelihood of the bill spilling over until next year is
increasing quite a bit,” he said last week.

The Senate a week ago failed to move the bill forward via a
cloture vote that would’ve put a time limit on its consideration.
Friedrich said Coleman and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., voted to
move the bill forward.

With the possibility looming that a new Farm Bill won’t be in
place until 2008, Friedrich said members of Congress are developing
a plan to ensure Farm Bill programs continue uninterrupted.

Terry Riley, vice president of policy for the Theodore Roosevelt
Conservation Partnership, said this week he believes the Senate
could pass a bill prior to the new year, but doubts a conference
committee could settle the matter before 2008.

Riley said some disagreements have arisen because of add-on
amendments that “have nothing to do with the Farm Bill;” others
that have caused dissent, he said, relate directly to the bill,
such as caps on program payments.

While he would’ve liked to have seen a Senate Farm Bill passed
this year, Riley said it’s important the Senate get it right.

“My opinion is, it’s better to wait until next spring (to pass
the bill),” he said. “I don’t like passing bills at the last
minute. It will affect a lot of people for a long period of
time.”

If a Farm Bill isn’t passed until 2008, most conservation
programs stand to be affected, each in different ways, according to
Tim Koehler, Minnesota assistant state conservationist for the
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency that
administers a number of the programs.

Koehler met via teleconference with a number of NRCS officials
this week and discussed the ramifications of no Farm Bill in 2007.
Koehler, along with PF and the TRCP, believes the Wetlands Reserve
Program and the Grassland Reserve Program could suffer the
most.

Without a new Farm Bill, or another source of funding (a
Congressionally approved extension, for example) “there’s no
baseline funding to continue (WRP),” Nomsen said. “We can’t
continue to go and do projects.”

In all Farm Bill-funded conservation programs, existing
contracts (easements/rental agreements) would be honored, but there
would be no new projects or enrollments without a new Farm Bill or
other Congressional action. Some programs expired at the end of
September; others will sunset Dec. 31, Koehler said.

Koehler said the Grassland Reserve Program has reached its
statutory cap, meaning no new money would be available to expand
the program without a new Farm Bill.

One exception is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program,
Koehler said, which was extended to 2012 by a previous
appropriations bill.

The Conservation Reserve Program, the Farm Bill’s signature
conservation program, may not allow new general signup in 2008,
with or without a new Farm Bill; however “continuous” CRP signup
could continue with a new bill, Koehler said. A Congressional
extension of the existing Farm Bill would return the program to
2007 funding levels.

Nomsen notes that some new items contained in both the House and
Senate versions of a Farm Bill could be delayed – things such as
Sodsaver, which would eliminate some Farm Bill commodity incentives
for landowners who till previously unfarmed land. Another item –
Open Fields – would be put on the back burner. That new program
would lend financial aid to states to expand or develop hunting
access programs.

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chair of the Senate Ag
Committee, said the Farm Bill could be delayed until after the 2008
elections. He suggested extending current farm law for one year
might be an option, if Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach
agreement.

“If we can’t get a Farm Bill through the Senate that came out of
the committee without one dissenting vote Š if we can’t do that,
then what’s the use trying to do it next year with the same
Senate?” Harkin asked.

House Ag Committee chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said even
less money could be available for the Farm Bill next year.

Harkin pointed out that a week earlier, President George Bush
has threatened to veto the Senate bill if changes weren’t made
prior to its passage; Bush said the $286 billion bill was too
expensive and would pay wealthy farmers too much.

The Senate is expected to resume Farm Bill talks yet this year,
but Nomsen said other items, including war funding and other
appropriations bills, could consume much of the Senate’s
calendar.

Should Farm Bill conservation funding be cut off until 2008,
Nomsen said he hopes Farm Service Agency officials can continue to
offer technical assistance to landowners, and perhaps line up
potential conservation projects in anticipation of a new Farm
Bill.

The conservation title is just a small part of the Farm Bill,
which includes commodity payments to farmers, and nutritional
programs, including the Food Stamp Program.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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