New farm bill ignores old problems

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The events of Sept. 11 have overshadowed the new farm bill debate shaping in Washington. The House passage of its farm bill version last Friday received just a whisper of media coverage.

But the political maneuvering in the House last week was rather phenomenal. House leaders, including Ag Committee chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, and ranking minority member Charles Stenholm, strong-armed their “same old, same old” measure to victory, even though the Bush administration urged them not to rush and to rethink the policy.

“They [House leadership] pulled out all the stops,” Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., told the Associated Press. “It was basic hardball.”

Boehlert was the main sponsor of an amendment that proposed reform of fundamental farm policy, emphasizing greater conservation program support, such as the current Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Agriculture is drawing down its reserves of public goodwill through continued ballooning subsidies that make no sense to the average taxpayer. We know that not all farmers receive subsidies, in fact, 58 percent of farmers do not. But we also read that 40 percent of subsidy payments go to the 8 percent of farms with the highest incomes.

Recent news accounts and commentaries on the new farm bill used such phrases as “record high levels of farm welfare” and “old and failed system of price supports.”

In contrast, the American Farm Bureau is calling the House vote a “great victory for America’s farmers and ranchers.”

A House so divided that the reform amendment was defeated by a slim 226-200 vote? A ‘great victory’ the House farm bill version is not.

Now it’s up to the Senate Ag Committee to craft its own version, and it’s not likely to be a carbon copy of the House bill.

“Farm income protection is a fundamental part of the farm bill,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Ag Committee. But it’s not enough, he says.

“The farm bill must also help farmers and rural communities create and realize opportunities for the future,” Harkin adds. “If the legislation fails to lay a foundation for new opportunities, rural America will be no better off five or 10 years from now.

“Farmers will be just as dependent on commodity program payments and rural communities will still be falling behind.”

How can our policies better promote resource efficiency, expand or create markets, protect natural resources and cost less?

Let’s hope the Senate does a better job of answering that question.

(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at editorial@farmanddairy.com.)

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