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Harkin visits Iowa farms, vows fight for CSP, energy innovations in farm bill

Fred Wilson's Clearfield, Iowa farm not far from the Missouri border is arguably in one of the most scenic areas of the state, with rolling pastures and forested ridges that draw out-of-state deer hunters every fall. But it's not an easy place to grow row crops.

That's why Wilson has been using no-till for more than 20 years to raise corn and soybeans. And because he's farming land that is also terraced, his careful stewardship qualified him for USDA's conservation security program (CSP) in 2005. Under the CSP, Wilson has made more changes in his farming, lowering the rate of nitrogen fertilizer that he applies and switching from fall-applied anhydrous ammonia to spring applications.

Saturday, Senator Tom Harkin, who not only represents Wilson and other Iowans in Congress but also heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, visited Wilson's farm and a handful of his neighbors to get a feel for how CSP really works. Harkin and his staff created the working lands conservation program in the 2002 farm bill. But Congress later cut funds for the program and the USDA stretched those dollars by restricting eligibility to certain watersheds. Now, the program looks as uncertain as ever. As Congress writes the next farm bill, the House Agriculture Committee's first version of the conservation title would have frozen new applications for the program until 2012. Since then, its chairman, Representative Collin Peterson, has said he's trying to get additional funds to keep it going.

Wilson invited Harkin into his pickup truck and drove him across an 80-acre field of soybeans.

"All you're going to see is no-till and terraces," Wilson said. He explained that because of no-till, the terraces, built in 1984, have never had to be cleaned out.

And even in wet years, Wilson manages to avoid tillage.

"We had two five-inch rains this spring and a five-inch rain last summer and I still no-tilled the whole thing," Wilson said. Wilson, who runs a tile contracting business as well as farming about 300 acres, said he's seen two-feet-deep ditches from that rain on neighboring farms that are tilled.

"There are farms within a mile of me that won't raise half the crop I can," he told Harkin.

Wilson is a Republican who is no fan of government programs. He has seen fragile land put into crops in order to collect commodity program payments. And he and his neighbors have seen southern Iowa suffer economically, in part, they believe, because the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program hurt the local agricultural economy. Many of the beneficiaries from that program don't even live in the area, they say. But Wilson likes the CSP, because he believes it rewards those who have taken good care of the land. "You've got to protect the soil," Wilson said.

"I appreciate you coming out to visit to see what goes on on the farm," Wilson told Harkin at one point.

Harkin made the visit to Wilson's farm and one other southern Iowa farm without a lot of fanfare. Only two reporters and about a dozen neighbors were at the farm along with Harkin and two staff members. After seeing Wilson's new soybeans rising from last year's corn stubble, the Iowa Democrat seemed as committed as ever to a conservation program that could help the nation raise more of both crops just as they're needed for the growing biofuels industry.

"I'm not going to give up on CSP," Harkin said in an interview at the end of his visit to Wilson's farm. "It's too important to the future to let it go." (Harking has also proposed combining all working lands programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, into a new working lands program called CSIP, or Comprehensive Stewardship Incentives Program.)

"It's one program that really helps family farmers," he added. Unlike some conservation and commodity programs, the payments for CSP are relatively modest, capped at $45,000 for farms that have to show improvements over an already high level of soil and resource conservation.

Yet Harkin, like Peterson, has yet to get a firm commitment from the leadership in his own chamber of Congress for spending more money on such conservation programs as the CSP. Harkin's own version of the farm bill isn't quite completed yet, so he hasn't made public exactly how he wants to increase conservation spending and change commodity programs.

But Saturday, Harkin repeated to Agriculture Online an earlier pledge to update the crop acreage bases that commodity program payments are calculated on. A series of articles by The Washington Post showed that the USDA spent $1.3 billion since 2000 making direct payments to landowners who don't farm.

Updating bases would eliminate those payments, Harkin said. "That saves us a lot of money."

Harkin also believes that the Senate will put some kind of cap on all commodity program payments to those who are actively farming. In 2002 Harkin supported a cap of $275,000. The House Agriculture Committee refused to go along with that limit when the final bill was negotiated in a conference committee of representatives and senators. This year, other senators, including Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, are pushing for a $250,000 cap. The Bush Administration has proposed stopping payments to anyone with adjusted gross taxable income above $200,000.

Harkin told Agriculture Online that his committee is also considering some sort of income cap as well as limits tied to program payments.

"We're looking at that," he said. "I don't know how much support we'll have for it in committee."

If the committee approves it, it would be higher than $200,000 income limit proposed by the Bush administration, Harkin said. It would be lower than the current income limit of $2.5 million, however.

Fred Wilson's Clearfield, Iowa farm not far from the Missouri border is arguably in one of the most scenic areas of the state, with rolling pastures and forested ridges that draw out-of-state deer hunters every fall. But it's not an easy place to grow row crops.

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