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Early draft of farm bill conservation programs stirs up dust in Washington

A draft of the conservation title of the next farm bill, which is expected to be discussed by a House Agriculture Subcomittee next week, is already being criticized by some conservation groups and by the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).

On Thursday, when House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) talked about the draft with reporters in Washington, it became apparent that it would not continue the Conservation Security Program (CSP), which Harkin introduced into the 2002 farm bill to encourage conservation on working lands.

Instead, Peterson is proposing expanding some other conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In order to pay for that, he cuts the CSP.

Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, predicted that approach could make it more difficult for the House Ag Committee to get a bill passed in the House without facing significant amendments on the floor of the House. That's something that Peterson has said he's trying to avoid by working closely with other members of the House. And he has said that he's meeting frequently with Harkin to compare notes on how the Senate version of a farm bill is proceeding.

"If they stick with this to the end, they won't get a bill," Hoefner predicted, pointing out that he can't imagine Harkin agreeing to support a farm bill without the CSP.

"We're just very saddened that they started the debate by killing one program to fund another," Hoefner told Agriculture Online late Thursday.

"The more they leave lots of disappointed constituencies, the more likely it is those groups will agree to support a major floor amendment. We've never done that," Hoefner said.

Hoefner's coalition, which includes the Land Stewardship Project and several groups based in Peterson's home state, wasn't the only critic of the draft conservation title in the conservation community. The Izaak Walton League of America found it lacking.

"Unfortunately, the Sodsaver initiative was not included in the farm bill framework," said Brad Redlin, Agricultural Program Director of the group. He called that priority issue for conservationists nationally. Sodsaver would protect natural grassland areas that have never been farmed by making them ineligible for any farm bill support payments.

Loni Kemp, a senior policy analyst at the Minnesota Project, another member of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Agriculture Online that Peterson's proposal came as a shock to many in the conservation community.

And Kemp thought she might have known. On April 19, she was among about a dozen who testified at a hearing on conservation programs before a House Agriculture subcommittee.

"Less than a month ago they invited me to come in and represent the conservation community. I got no hint that this was coming," she said.

She and others were briefed by a House Ag Committee staffer Thursday morning by telephone.

She remains mystified by Peterson's proposal, saying that it has broad support among farmers.

"Every single farm group and conservation group has included funding to let farmers have access to the conservation security program," she said. "There is no opposition to the program out here in the countryside."

Peterson's proposal, which would freeze the program by delaying any new signups during the five years of the next farm bill, also proposes major changes in its rules and regulations.

"It's kind of absurd to work on language changes when it would have no meaning for five years," Kemp said. "There might be some good ideas in there, but who cares in that context?"

The next step in the farm bill writing process for conservation programs will be a meeting next Tuesday of the Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee. Kemp said that she doesn't think there is time to write a major revision to Peterson's proposal, but she believes some of the subcommittee members are strong supporters of the CSP.

"I think we'll hear the feelings of members off the committee about this. My hope is that they'll be able to get it fixed," she said.

In a statement, Senator Harkin said the House version won't provide needed protection of land and resources as the nation ramps up biofuels production.

"The House bill perpetuates the damage to conservation and the environment caused by the previous two Congresses and the Bush administration," Harkin said. "Farmers need more conservation funding on agricultural land, yet the House bill doesn't provide it. We need to devote funding to providing farmers the tools they need to produce the food, fiber and fuel America needs, while also producing the environmental benefits like clean water and abundant wildlife that come from good conservation." 

Harkin explained that, "the 2002 farm bill provided the greatest expansion of conservation funding in history. Yet the promised conservation initiatives -- expanding EQIP, creating the CSP program, continuing to expand acres protected in the WRP [Wetlands Reserve Program] -- were denied because funding was cut in subsequent legislation. This year's farm bill provides an opportunity to reverse the damage of those budget cuts. That is more necessary than ever given the demands placed on conservation by the record planting this season and the need to produce more biofuels for national energy security."

A draft of the conservation title of the next farm bill, which is expected to be discussed by a House Agriculture Subcomittee next week, is already being criticized by some conservation groups and by the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).

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