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Ag committees seek boost to conservation programs

The chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees both indicated a desire Thursday to increase spending on conservation programs in the next Farm Bill, although they're taking approaches that differ significantly. And, they both suggested that there will be no additional funds for commodity programs.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced plans to integrate three existing conservation programs into one that he calls the Comprehensive Stewardship Incentives Program or CSIP.

"I intend to use the new farm bill to strengthen conservation on America's farms and ranches," Harkin said.

Harkin proposes combining today's conservation security program (CSP), environmental quality incentives program (EQIP) and wildlife habitat incentives program (WHIP) into the new CSIP and simplifying the signup process. He wants to spend $6 billion in new conservation funds above the budget projections, or baseline, for the next farm bill's five years. About $3 billion of that would pay for CSIP, allowing the CSP portion of today's farm bill to become a national program, not one limited to a few watersheds in each state.

POPULAR WITH FARMERS

Harkin said he believes the CSP program is popular with farmers and pointed out that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has told him that support for CSP came up consistently at farm policy listening sessions held by the USDA around the country.

Under current budgeting rules in Congress that require expanded programs to be offset with cuts in other programs or new revenue to the federal government, Harkin has to find money to pay for his new ideas for conservation.

He told reporters that he's optimistic that other members of the Senate will help him come up with the funds. Eight members of his committee are also on the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for tax legislation.

"I would think they'd want to be very helpful," Harkin said, adding that he knows the chairman of that committee, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) has his staff looking for possible sources of new money for the farm bill.

The House Agriculture Committee is already considering the conservation title of the next farm bill and, so far, it expands spending on EQIP, partly by freezing any new enrollments in the conservation security program until the end of the farm bill in 2012.

Peterson told reporters Thursday he may have been too cautious about potential funds for conservation. He said he met with the leadership of the House yesterday and that he believes some money might be available for conservation from legislation already passed by the House that would roll back tax breaks for oil companies that were included in the 2005 Energy Bill. (The Senate has not passed similar legislation.)

If Peterson gets extra funds, there might also be money to continue the CSP, he said, after taking time to revise the rules for the program.

"A year or two delay in signup would allow changes to be made," Peterson said.

Peterson said his emphasis on EQIP over the CSP "is just a reflection of the priorities of the committee."

"The overwhelming interest was to put more money into EQIP because there's a big backlog," he said. Members of the committee believe the money is needed to help producers deal with government regulations, he added. So far, about 60% of EQIP funds have been used by livestock producers, including large feedlots, for conservation projects such as controls of livestock waste.

Peterson said that the CSP in some cases has paid landowners for using no-till and other practices they would likely use anyway.

"I'm not sure we want to start another government entitlement program for landowners just because they're landowners," Peterson said.

NO NEW COMMODITY PROGRAM MONEY

Despite their differences, neither Peterson nor Harkin are likely to expand funding on commodity programs.

"In the commodity title, it's my view at this point, there will not be reserve funds used in the commodity title," Peterson said, referring to a "reserve" of $20 billion that Congress has set aside for agriculture. So far, there is no money in that reserve but it's Peterson's hope that savings from rescinded tax breaks for oil companies may be part of the extra reserve.

Harkin went even further than Peterson on money for commodities. Peterson has said in the past that he won't use money from commodity programs to pay for other things in the farm bill. Harkin told reporters Thursday that he wasn't opposed to making some changes in the commodity title of the farm bill that might free up money for other programs.

"I think we need reform in payment limits. I think we need reform in direct payments," Harkin said, adding that he's still not certain how Congress can justify making about $5.2 billion a year in direct payments to landowners.

He suggested some of that money might be used as an incentive to raise crops for cellulosic ethanol, crops such as switchgrass. Harkin believes that might become a new commodity.

And he sees other potential commodities.

"How about specialty crops? Aren't fruits and vegetables commodities?" he asked.

He said he's also willing to look at other aspects of the commodity title. In the marketing loan program, he's sympathetic toward rebalancing loan rates. "I have a sense they're not fairly distributed across the board," he said.

"In the countercyclical program, he's interested in some type of revenue-based program," he said. "That has some merit and we're looking at that." He added that the cost of the program would be affected by how revenue is calculated, whether it's at a national, state or county level.

The USDA farm bill proposal has a national-level, revenue-based countercyclical program. American Farm Bureau has suggested considering one based on state revenue levels. And the National Corn Growers Association has proposed a revenue protection program based on county level revenue.

PROPOSAL IS APPLAUDED

Some conservation groups welcomed Harkin's proposal for a consolidated conservation program for working farms and ranches.

"The CSIP proposal provides an excellent framework for achieving important working lands conservation objectives," said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in a statement released Thursday. "It can provide farmers with a common sign-up, common application opportunity with reduced paperwork. It would provide for an annual, nationwide, continuous sign-up process. It provides a framework for improving the conservation and environmental standards and performance of the current EQIP program and for strengthening and streamlining the current CSP program. If it is provided the additional financial resources it needs to succeed, the CSIP concept would be a very positive advance for working lands conservation."

The money for such new programs remains a question, Hoefner told Agriculture Online in an e-mail message.

"There is clearly going to have to be new money made available for the farm bill or it is not likely to happen," Hoefner said. "But how much and from where is the question. . . Just within the politics of the conservation title, I would say $6 billion is about the minimum number to be able to reach a deal among the competing interests."

Hoefner said his coalition also supports other parts of Harkin's conservation proposals, which include fully funding the Wetlands Reserve Program, passing the "sodsaver" protection for grasslands, and combining and streamlining the easement programs, including the current Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program and the Grasslands Reserve Program. Those ideas were also part of the Bush Administration's farm bill plan, he said.

The chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees both indicated a desire Thursday to increase spending on conservation programs in the next Farm Bill, although they're taking approaches that differ significantly. And, they both suggested that there will be no additional funds for commodity programs.

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