Farm bill negotiations and reality

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Advances in modern technology gave me a small glimpse of the farm bill deliberations in Washington the past week or so, as the public hearings were transmitted over the Internet and I could listen to them on my computer as I worked (although it’s hard to pay attention to two things at the same time, I admit).

One portion of a hearing last week involved the debate over the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. Created under the 1996 farm bill, EQIP offers 5- to 10-year contracts that provide incentive payments and cost sharing for conservation practices in “priority” areas. Half of the ’96 program’s funding was targeted to livestock-related concerns and the remainder to other conservation priorities.

The conference committee members were talking specifically about manure storage facilities, what they cost, what size farms built them, etc. It was eye-opening for the lawmakers to hear what it costs to build a livestock waste storage facility.

After fumbling around looking for numbers, finally a USDA representative from the Natural Resources Conservation Service offered these average costs for farms with between 150 and 300 animal units (equivalent of roughly 90 to 200 mature dairy cows or 1,500 to 3,000 hogs over 55 pounds): $50,000 for a beef facility; $72,000 for dairy; $39,000 for poultry; and $55,000 for hogs.

The reality is that even small farms will have the same basic investment in protecting the environment as large farms.

And when a California committee member shared information that his state is leaning toward regulations of covered manure storage facilities, another Congressman blustered, “I never heard of such a thing!” Well, sir, get used to it; there are many such covered manure facilities right here in Ohio – and on small farms, too.

The obvious question one conferee finally asked, was “What will the general public support?”

There you have it. A consumerist Congress must consider societal benefits and costs. What will the average taxpayer support in terms of natural resources protection and conservation by farmers? There is a middle of the road and we must find it.

The shadow of the Environmental Working Group’s Web site listing all the federal farm program payments made in the last five years loomed large over these negotiations. The pressure for payment limitations was great. That impact colored all farm bill conversations.

“Agriculture has changed,” said one conferee during last Friday’s news conference in announcing a farm bill framework had been achieved. “Everyone recognized that.”

Sen. Tom Harkin added, “You cannot roll back the clock where American agriculture is today.”

Then there was the one senator who, , said simply and honestly, “I’m glad it’s over with.”

For farmers, it’s just beginning.

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