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

Agriculture.com Staff 07/02/2007 @ 6:43am

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.

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