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Ag committee chairmen say they're strong on conservation

Agriculture.com Staff 01/22/2007 @ 3:01pm

The new Democratic leaders of the ag committees in Congress agreed on the need for stronger federal programs to move the country toward ethanol production with switchgrass and other soil-conserving crops in a joint appearance at Pheasants Forever's Pheasant Fest held over the weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

They also pledged to not lower commodity price supports and cast doubt on whether Congress would approve a new World Trade Organization agreement soon.

Conservation programs, especially the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that has shifted about 36 million acres of erosion-prone cropland into grass and trees, are strongly supported by the hunters' organization which also raises funds for private wildlife conservation efforts. About 12% of Pheasants Forever members are also farmers. And with corn-based ethanol driving land prices and rents upward, there's concern in this group that farmers will shift land out of the CRP as contracts expire, or that Congress will spend less on CRP. Livestock groups and grain exporters have already expressed concern about the effects of high corn prices on their businesses.

"The first bulwark you've got against reducing the conservation reserve program is Collin Peterson and Tom Harkin," Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin told an overflow crowd of more than 350 at a farm bill forum Saturday. Representative Collin Peterson, the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee was on the panel, along with Representative Leonard Boswell (D-IA) another Ag Committee member.

Peterson said he's hearing from people who want to reduce CRP acres in order to grow more corn. But out of 36 million acres in the CRP, only 5-6 million could be planted to crops without erosion problems, he said.

"I'm not interested in planting more acres that are going to cause us more crop insurance and disaster problems," he said.

Still, Peterson and Harkin acknowledged some challenges for conservation programs. Peterson said the biggest hurdle will be the budget.

"We are in a new world, at least in the House. We have re-established pay-go rules," he said, referring to pay-as-you go requirements that the cost of any new programs be offset with cuts to other programs or with tax increases. "That's probably going to hit us hardest in agriculture."

Harkin said that he's trying to convince the Senate Budget Committee and the White House to commit new budget resources to producing energy crops such as switchgrass. His goal is to add back about $20 billion for the next five-year farm bill. That includes about $16 billion not spent on commodity programs as was expected when the last farm bill took effect in 2002, and about $4 billion that Congress cut from the Conservation Security Program, a new program for working farms and ranches.

In a speech to Pheasants Forever members last Friday evening, Harkin suggested that support for cellulosic ethanol will be a big part of his next farm bill.

"We see a lot of interesting forces at work here folks. I'm not going to lie to you. The single most important thing we can do for our country is to become energy independent," he said.

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