Washington – Passage of an updated federal Farm Bill took a step
forward last week when the Senate passed a bill that would support
U.S. agriculture, provide funding for nutritional programs, and
continue a number of conservation programs, among other items
included in the $286 billion bill.
A conference committee must now iron out the differences between
House (passed in July) and Senate bills, and the resulting
legislation must be approved by President Bush.
The bill passed the Senate by a 79-14 vote.
“We are working on recommendations to make the conservation
provisions as strong as possible by combining various provisions in
both the Senate and House bills, and we look forward to coming to
an agreement that strongly supports conservation,” Dave Nomsen,
Pheasants Forever vice president of government affairs, said in a
The Senate bill’s conservation title is nearly a mirror of
recommendations made by the Senate Ag Committee: Major conservation
programs will continue, with some changes made, and provisions such
as “Sodsaver” (to protect native prairie) and “Open Fields” (to
encourage hunter access) were included.
However, amendments to the bill that would have limited farm
subsidy payments – and presumably could’ve put more money toward
conservation – were defeated in the Senate.
Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman said the Senate bill –
held up for more than a month over how many amendments could be
offered – expands conservation in the nation.
“The Senate-passed bill provides the largest investment in
conservation in Farm Bill history,” he said in a statement. “The
conservation title of the bill will improve land access, strengthen
habitat, and improve quality of life for anyone who likes to fish,
hunt, hike, or just spend time in the outdoors.”
Among the notable measures in the Senate bill: the Farm Bill’s
signature conservation program – the Conservation Reserve Program –
would continue at its current pace of enrollment, with a cap of
39.2 million acres nationwide. Enrollment is now at about 36
According to PF, “The Wetlands Reserve Program and the Grassland
Reserve Program also received votes of confidence in the Senate
Farm Bill;” the WRP would include funds to enroll 250,000 acres per
year through 2012, and new funding is provided for the GRP.
A key difference between the House and Senate bill is the
treatment of the Conservation Security Program, renamed the
Conservation Stewardship Program in the Senate bill. The CSP
rewards landowners for conservation practices on working farms.
While the House bill, like the Senate bill, changes enrollment
requirements, the House bill prohibits additional CSP signups
through 2012. Meanwhile, the Senate bill – with support from Sen.
Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture,
Nutrition and Forestry – “proposes to raise the program’s budget to
$1.2 billion over five years, while enrolling 13 million acres per
year,” according to PF. An additional 80 million acres could be
added over the next five years – the term of the Farm Bill.
That pleases Loni Kemp, senior policy analyst for The Minnesota
Project, a group dedicated to farms and conservation.
Kemp called the CSP provision in the Senate bill “good news,”
especially the fact that some constraints to participating in the
program would be removed, namely a “tier” system, and watershed
“This will do more for water quality, and more for wildlife
conservation,” she said, adding that the bill would allow states to
get certain acreage allocations to enroll in the Conservation
Kemp said that in Minnesota, CSP enrollment under the bill could
reach about 357,000 acres each year.
As for provisions new to the 2007 Farm Bill, a top priority for
groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League of America
has been Sodsaver – intended to discourage landowners from tilling
native prairie, primarily in areas like the Prairie Pothole Region,
where a vast number of waterfowl are reared each year.
Ideally, according to Brad Redlin, of the Ikes, federal payments
(commodity subsidies and crop insurance) wouldn’t be available to
landowners who began to farm previously unused prairie. The Senate
bill includes a somewhat watered-down Sodsaver, one that would
allow farmers to receive crop deficiency payments (subsidies), but
not crop insurance or disaster payments (the House version allows
such payments after four years).
The bill also addresses alternative energy issues, Kemp said,
including a means to aid farmers in converting to non-subsidized
crops (switchgrass, for example) that might be used for
An Open Fields provision is included in the Senate bill, as it
is in the House version. Open Fields would provide financial
incentive for states with existing “walk-in” access programs to
expand their programs – and those without, financial help in
developing such a program.
DU expressed satisfaction with the bill in a press release:
“This moves America’s farmers one step closer to having the
much-needed tools to farm the best and conserve the rest,” DU’s
Scott Sutherland, director of governmental affairs, said in the
Most of the national attention to the Farm Bill was focused on
reform, or lack thereof, and President Bush has threatened to veto
the bill, saying it costs too much and should instead be cutting
subsidies at a time of record-high crop prices.
An amendment by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would have
ended government subsidy payments to farmers earning more than
$750,000 after expenses, won a majority vote (49-48), but failed to
receive the required 60 votes. The current cutoff is $2.5 million.
Another amendment similarly was defeated. That amendment would’ve
limited federal farm payments to $250,000, down from the current
The House would ban payments to all who earn an average of $1
million a year or more. A Bush administration proposal suggests a
reduction of payments to individuals who make more than an average
of $200,000 yearly.
A further-reaching Senate amendment, one that would have phased
out farm subsidies, replacing them with stronger crop insurance,
was rejected by the Senate.
Sen. Richard Luger, R-Ind., a sponsor of the amendment, said
current government programs benefit the wealthiest farmers and
should be scaled back as crop prices are hitting all-time
“There has never been a better time for farmers to change,”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.