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Farm Bill Conservation Plan Facing Cuts

Friday, September 18, 2009

Argus Leader, Faith Bremner

Published September 10, 2008

Senate Democrats are about to renege on an earlier plan to give more money to programs that pay farmers and ranchers to protect wildlife habitat and water quality, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group said Tuesday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee in July approved legislation that next year would cut 8 percent of the funding that Congress authorized for farm bill conservation programs a month earlier, EWG Midwest Vice President Craig Cox said.

Meanwhile, the bill would not cut spending on farm subsidies, which go mostly to the nation's wealthiest farmers, Cox said.

"These cuts to conservation are coming at a very, very bad time," Cox said. "The commodity price boom and federal laws pushing ethanol are driving producers to bring new land into production and intensify production on existing acres. The USDA predicts we're set to lose some 12 million acres of (Conservation Reserve Program) ground by 2010."

South Dakota outdoor writer and TV and radio host Tony Dean said the shortfall could hurt the state's $200 million-a-year pheasant hunting industry.

Last year, 40,000 farmers across the country were turned away from U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs because there wasn't enough money in the budget to include them, Dean said.

"What I'm probably most upset about, while this has been a Republican tactic in years past, in the Senate it's Democrats (who are) working behind the scenes to cut these conservation programs and it's very disgusting," Dean said.

The Environmental Working Group has long been a critic of farm bill programs.

According to the organization, the Republican- controlled Congress, from 2002 to 2007, shorted conservation programs 7 percent of the funding authorized in the 2002 farm bill.

Legislation authorizing federal expenditures doesn't guarantee that Congress will appropriate the money later, especially when unforeseen expenses arise. That's what happened in the case of farm bill conservation programs, said a spokesman for Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of the Appropriations Committee's agricultural subcommittee.

Lawmakers are proposing the cuts because they had to spend more money than anticipated on, among other things, farm bill food programs that help women, infants and poor people, Kohl spokesman Rohit Mahajan said.

"Sen. Kohl has been a longtime champion of conservation programs, but the subcommittee was severely limited by rising food prices and the need to keep initiatives, such as WIC (Women, Infants and Children), and international food aid, whole," Mahajan said. "WIC, for example, went up $1 billion in one year from the previous year."

South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who sits on Kohl's subcommittee, does not favor cutting conservation programs to pay for the shortfalls, said his spokeswoman Julianne Fisher.

Instead, subsidy payments should be lowered from the new $750,000 cap to something closer to the $250,000 cap Johnson supports, Fisher said.

"He'll be working with Chairman (Robert) Byrd to find ways to fund (the conservation programs)," Fisher said. "One of the best ways would be (lower) payment caps."


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