Senate farm bill moves to floor

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WASHINGTON – A reauthorization farm bill passed out of the Senate Agricultural Committee Nov. 15, just as Congress recessed for Thanksgiving.

While national producer organizations were quick to issue expressions of official praise for the committee’s effort, they also had a bone or two to pick with the version now scheduled to come to the Senate floor.

“Our challenge now,” said the National Pork Producers Council, echoing other producer statements, “is to ensure that the gains made by our industry get stronger as the bill moves to the Senate floor, to the conference committee and to the president’s desk.”

The National Farmers Union called it a “step in the right direction,” and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vowed to carry his fight for stronger environmental programs to the Senate floor.

One Republican. The bill passed the committee 12-9, with only one Republican, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, joining the Democratic senators in voting in favor.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin’s estimate is that the legislation would cost $174 billion over 10 years, $4 billion more than the House version passed earlier. There were some significant changes made in committee to the bill proposed by Harkin.

Harkin had said earlier that strengthened conservation program and incentives was the centerpiece of his proposed farm policy.

Now a reality. “Today we have made that a reality,” Harkin said as the bill was approved.

At the same time, environmentalists were accusing the committee of robbing conservation funding to increase commodity payments to farmers. They also have vowed to take their fight to the Senate floor.

The measure would establish a new comprehensive incentive payment program introduced by Harkin, the Conservation Security Program. Under the program, farmers who voluntarily maintain and adopt conservation practices on working lands would receive incentive payments.

This approach, Harkin said, is the future of agricultural policy.

EQIP funding. The environmental quality incentives, or EQIP, program would also be strengthened, with funding increased by this bill to $1.25 billion a year, over six times the current funding level of $200 million a year.

The conservation title of the bill would also:

* Enlarge acreage for the conservation reserve program to 40 million acres from the 36.4 million acre current limit.

* Double acreage for the wetlands reserve program by increasing the total acreage cap by 1.25 million acres.

* Add seven times more funding over the next five years for the wildlife habitat incentives program, bringing it to $360 million.

* Increase funding for the farmland protection program more than 24 times over the next five years, from $35 million to $850 million.

* Establish a new grassland reserve program to enroll up to one million acres of grasslands in long-term contracts and easements.

Commodity support. The commodity programs approved in the bill are close to those approved earlier by the House of Representatives.

They include the continuation of the direct payments on major crops (wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, rice soybeans, minor oilseeds, peanuts, and upland cotton), and, a targeted price measure of counter-cyclical payments made when market prices fall below the established targeted revenue per planted acre. For corn that revenue mark would be $270; for soybeans, $215; for oats, $46; for wheat, $120.

Under the committee’s bill, most marketing loan rates would rise – to $2.08 for corn and $3 for wheat. The soybean loan rate would fall marginally to $5.20.

Limitation lost. Harkin had proposed a limitation of combined direct and counter-cyclical payments of $100,000 for any individual as a reform measure to control subsidy payments to large-scale farming operations, but the provision was abandoned in the face of opposition.

Republican members of the committee opposed the Harkin bill as a return to the past, charging that the level of subsidy guaranteed farmers would encourage overproduction and keep prices down.

The Republican substitute bill offered by Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Thad Cochran of Mississippi had lower price guarantees, but higher fixed payments and would have given farmers money to deposit into IRA-type savings accounts to help them balance out low price years.

Energy co-ops. The committee also approved a title to promote farm-based renewable energy sources that included a grant and loan program to help establish new farmer-owned renewable energy co-ops.

There is a grant and loan program for assistance in the purchase of renewable energy systems such as wind-turbines, solar or energy-efficient heat pumps, and an energy audit program.

The bill also includes the dairy program promoted by Sen. Leahy that would establish a compact pricing system for dairy producers in every area of the country.

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