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Familiar farm bill territory

So far, the new farm bill is looking a lot like the old, disappointing reformers but reassuring many farm and commodity groups.

Next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee will finish drafting its version of a farm bill, which the full House is expected to vote on before the end of this month. That's a big step in writing the next farm law. The Senate still has to go through the same process before both chambers of Congress work out a compromise that will be the final bill.

The Agriculture Committee's "Chairman's Mark" makes big shifts in funding for conservation, freezing new enrollment in the Conservation Security Program in order to pay for expanding other conservation programs. And it keeps the same commodity program safety net crafted in the 2002 farm bill. But it's not just an extension of the commodity title of the current farm program, something that a subcommittee unanimously approved, with minor changes, last month.

Since the Agriculture Committee posted its farm bill on its Web site last week, farm groups have been meeting with members to urge more last-minute changes.

"This thing changes a lot in that committee -- daily," Kansas farmer Ken McCauley, president of the National Corn Growers Association told Agriculture Online earlier this week. His group was still hoping that the committee would support a revenue-based counter-cyclical program that would help farmers when either prices, yields or a combination of the two decreases farm revenue. Although Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) has talked about offering that program as a voluntary option to farmers, his version posted Friday doesn't have it.

Thursday, Iowa farmer John Hoffman, the newly-elected president of the American Soybean Association was returning home after several days of lobbying, including spending more than an hour with Peterson on Wednesday.

His group is pleased with the Ag Committee's work so far. ASA hasn't endorsed the Corn Growers' revenue protection idea. Instead, its top goal has been to put commodity program payments, mainly the countercyclical program, on what it says is a more equal footing with commodities like corn. ASA wanted the target price used to calculate countercyclical payments raised from the current $5.80 a bushel to $6.85. Peterson's bill raises it to $6.10.

Hoffman said his group realizes that a tight budget made a bigger increase difficult.

Asked if he thinks that increase might change when the committee votes next week, Hoffman told Agriculture Online, "I'm pretty confident at this point that $6.10 is a pretty firm figure."

Even after the committee votes out a farm bill, it could face a challenge on the House Floor from Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) and others, especially if it doesn't have stronger limits on commodity program payments.

But Hoffman saw evidence that Peterson is working hard to prevent that. He has hired two new staff members to call other members of the House to urge their support for the committee's version of the bill, Hoffman said. And Peterson is working with members of both political parties.

"The thing that was interesting to me is that he's working quite closely with Nancy Pelosi (the Speaker of the House)," Hoffman added.

Among the disappointed are backers of working lands conservation programs. Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson proposes freezing the Conservation Security Program five years, saving $4.3 billion to pay for the Wetlands Reserve Program and boost the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

"They're cutting $4.3 billion, which dwarfs anything they're doing in the commodity title," said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

"He's done some really good things for beginning farmers and a little bit for organics and local foods," Hoefner added. "But all of that is small compared to killing CSP."

Included in help for startup farmers is a lower interest rate and down payment for a program that helps young farmers buy land. And there's mandatory money, $15 million a year, to help support mentoring and linking programs that put young farmers in touch with established farmers will to help them get started.

Farm groups are still pinning their hopes on the Senate Agriculture Committee for changes that didn't show up in the House bill.

Hoefner believes Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin will support a working lands program. Harkin has already said he wants to create a new program that combines EQIP with the CSP in what he calls the Comprehensive Stewardship Incentives Program.

And McCauley sees support in Harkin's recent statements that he'd like to introduce a revenue-based program. "We think there's some opportunity there," McCauley said.

Earlier this week Harkin again said that expanding conservation on working lands is crucial as the nation ramps up crop production to meet demand for biofuels.

"This farm bill must be about the future of agriculture, not preserving the relics of the past," Harkin told reporters.

So far, the new farm bill is looking a lot like the old, disappointing reformers but reassuring many farm and commodity groups.

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