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New Senate Ag chair vows to restore conservation cuts, promote competition

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, will be back at the helm of the Senate Agriculture Committee next year and he's pulling no punches in his battle to restore programs he says the Republicans gutted or prevented in the 2002 farm bill.

"The promise of this farm bill has not been fulfilled," Harkin told reporters Thursday.

Among the programs he supports:

  • Mandatory country-of-origin labeling, a part of the last farm bill that was delayed several times through the budget process;
  • A competition title to the farm bill that would give livestock producers more bargaining rights with meat packers. It was not included in the 2002 farm bill;
  • Restoring funding for the Conservation Security Program, which was restricted by USDA rules that limit the program to certain watersheds;
  • Expanding a school lunch program that includes free snacks of fruits and vegetables to more states.

Harkin said Thursday that when his committee writes the next farm bill in 2007, it will be an open process that includes Republicans.

"I intend to do the Conservation Security Program just like we did in the last farm bill," he said. "We intend in the bill to make it a full national program." It will not compete with funding for commodity programs, he added, and he’ll try to get funding restored to the program that was used to pay for previous disaster assistance to farmers and ranchers.

"I also want a strong competition title to ensure fair and even-handed markets for livestock producers," he said.

During debate on the 2002 farm bill, Harkin said his competition title would bring only the same kind of contracting rights to farmers as federal law already guarantees for franchisees, automobile dealers and gas station operators when they contract with parent companies.

Until now, Congress has delayed mandatory country of origin labeling on meats until 2008, but Harkin said Thursday that he intends to include it in the 2007 farm bill.

"USDA's had plenty of time to figure out how to make it work," he said. "You can bet your bottom dollar it's going to be part of the farm bill."

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, will be back at the helm of the Senate Agriculture Committee next year and he's pulling no punches in his battle to restore programs he says the Republicans gutted or prevented in the 2002 farm bill.

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