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A conservation canyon?

Congress's two ag committee chairman seem to be standing on opposite sides of a deep gully when it comes to soil conservation, especially working lands programs.

Last week, speaking to reporters after the House passed its version of a farm bill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) explained why the bill essentially freezes new enrollment in the conservation security program (CSP) until the bill expires in 2012.

The CSP doesn't have a big constituency, Peterson said. So his committee boosted spending for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Wetlands Reserve and other conservation programs instead.

"From talking to his members on his own committee from both sides of the aisle, I think he's got some serious selling to do," Peterson said of Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) support for the CSP.

Tuesday, Harkin made his own views on conservation clear.

"With millions of acres of fragile, erodible land being taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program and put into production, we have an acute need to boost investments in conservation, especially conservation on working lands," Harkin said as he outlined his farm bill goals to reporters.

Harkin believes some kind of expanded working lands program is essential as the nation ramps up crop production for biofuels.

Corn production this year is up by about 15 million acres, he said. "A lot of that is hilly land. It's fragile land. More than ever, we need a CSP-type program. To say we're going to have more ethanol but not provide conservation is like saying we're going to have strip mining of our farms."

Harkin said his goal is to have enrolled around 80 million acres of working land by the end of the farm bill- twice as many as is authorized for the largest current conservation program, the Conservation Reserve Program. That would be 80 million new acres between now and 2013. Currently, the CSP has about 16 million acres enrolled.

In the commodity title of the Senate bill, Harkin said he does not plan to raise loan rates. Nor does he plan to tap direct payments to pay for other programs. He said there isn't support for that in the ag committee, although there may be amendments to the bill when it hits the Senate floor that are aimed at taking direct payment funds for other purposes.

Harkin said he's still looking into offering some kind of revenue-based program, "more like a counter-cyclical program that's been proposed by the Corn Growers Association. The more I look at it, the more I like it."

In other areas, Harkin isn't far apart from the House bill. He said that he likes its energy title and probably will have a similar one, although he'd like to do more to provide financial incentives to farmers to establish new energy crops.

Harkin also said that he believes the Senate will use a tax plan similar to one in the House that was strongly criticized by Republicans in the closing hours of last week's farm bill debate. The House tax bill would tap foreign-based corporations operating in the U.S., providing part of about $7 billion in new funds for increases in food stamps as well as agricultural programs. Democrats say the tax bill is closing a loophole that is unfair to U.S. companies. Republicans describe it as a tax increase that also jeopardizes 58 treaties with other nations for similar tax treatment of U.S. companies operating overseas.

The tax bill is one reason that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has said he may urge President Bush to veto the final farm bill. Harkin said that's not the only reason and that there are genuine policy differences between the Administration and the House. He said that he hopes the Senate bill can resolve some of those policy complaints.

Harkin said that his committee's bill may also have an income test for receiving commodity program payments and that it would likely be lower than the $1 million in adjusted gross income in the House version of the farm bill. Johanns has proposed an income limit of $200,000.

Harkin said that he's hoping to get more details on his committee's possible farm bill released to members and the press soon, possibly as early as next week.

Congress's two ag committee chairman seem to be standing on opposite sides of a deep gully when it comes to soil conservation, especially working lands programs.

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