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Feeding your mind, saving the planet >>

Congress Not Done With Farm Bill

Friday, September 18, 2009

Black Hills Pioneer, Denise Ross
Published September 29, 2008

The 2008 Farm Bill has barely left the lot and Congress has pulled it back into the garage for some tinkering.

The U.S. Senate has proposed $331 million in cuts to a series of conservation programs designed to leave some land in its natural state rather than plowing every square inch under for crops. Last week, the
Environmental Working Group — those folks who publish how much every farmer gets in Farm Bill subsidies — held a conference call to protest.

“Within weeks of the Farm Bill’s passage, the Senate appropriations committee sent to the Senate floor a spending bill (S.3289) that would slash conservation measures,” the EWG said in a press release.

Indeed, the Farm Bill passed in late June and by July S.3289 had been born.

Even before the proposed cuts have had a hearing, the EWG says that 40,000 farmers have asked to sign up for conservation programs only to be turned away by their local Farm Service Agency offices due to a
lack of funding.

All this after Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., warned farmers at the South Dakota State Fair to be watchful as the Bush administration put the new Farm Bill into practice. She didn’t mention
that her colleagues in the Senate might also be up to some mischief.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., told Gannett News Service that Johnson opposes the conservation cuts and would rather see the payment cap to individual farmers lowered from $750,000 per year to $250,000. (Despite everyone claiming to be for lower payment caps, the
2008 Farm Bill was the first to see any cap at all. Whoever is against the lower caps isn’t speaking up in public.)

Meanwhile, well-known South Dakota conservationist, hunter and angler Tony Dean, who writes a weekly column and has his own radio and TV shows, joined the EWG conference call and said that when it’s harder
for farmers to practice good conservation, the rest of the country suffers.

“Most taxpayers don’t share in the benefits of the Farm Bill, but they sure are picking up the costs for cleaning up areas like the dead zone in the Gulf (of Mexico),” Dean said. “Conservation in the Farm Bill is
one thing the average taxpayer gets back — good water quality, reasonably good wildlife habitat, good hunting and fishing.”

Craig Cox, EWG Midwest vice president, said Congress’ habit of cutting the Farm Bill’s conservation programs isn’t the money-saving measure it might appear to be. The cost comes in higher pollution, he said.

“With cuts like this year after year, it’s no wonder that agriculture is the number one source of water pollution in the nation,” Cox said. “Democrats in Congress are using bait-and-switch tactics with
conservation funding. This practice mirrors a longstanding Republican tradition of broken promises where pledges to increase money for environmental programs are followed by systematic and dramatic cuts
that have left conservation programs billions short over the past decade.

“At the same time, farm subsidies that largely go to the largest farms and wealthiest landowners are untouched.”

A lot of those subsidies that Cox, the EWG and others object to go to corn farmers, and the recent ethanol boom — which also has its roots in federal laws — further frustrates those who want less land in ag
production.

Farmers find a much richer financial reward in growing crops, especially corn, than in signing up for a government conservation program — assuming they can sign up at all. The high prices are great
for individual farmers, Dean and Cox agree, but the cumulative effect is more pollution.

“The price boom for ethanol is driving to intensify production,” Cox said. “USDA predicts we’re set to lose 12 million acres of CRP ground by 2010 — a third of the acres in CRP.”

“When you combine the commodities program and the strong market, we’re bringing millions and millions of more acres into production. This is going to take us back to the Earl Butts era, fence-row to fence-row

farming,” Dean said. “Corn acres hit a 50-year high in 2007. Corn has the potential to be the most environmentally damaging.”

Dean refers to the former U.S. secretary of agriculture who sought to boost farmers’ income by encouraging them to grow more crops, which could be sold around the globe.

Here’s the irony. All of this debate, and it’s a good debate to have, probably won’t amount to much. North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner told Bismarck that the Senate’s Democratic leaders have introduced the
bill to cut spending under pressure from the White House and their Republican colleagues. But most likely nothing will come of it.

The Farm Bill spending decisions will be left to the next administration.

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