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Payment structures targeted at Senate ag field hearing

Two members of the Senate Agriculture Committee came to Council Bluffs, Iowa, Saturday looking for ideas on how to make changes in the next farm bill on a limited budget. Farmers and conservationists who testified at the hearing didn't come up short.

Among the proposals: Cut whole-farm CRP enrollment and shift that money to buffer strips through continuous signup, shift Direct Payments into green payments that reward conservation on working farms and ranches, and cap commodity program payments for additional savings.

Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), the committee chairman, and Ben Nelson (D-NE) ran the Saturday morning session at Western Iowa Community College. Harkin said he wished he had the money that was available for the 2002 farm bill and he emphasized that he'll push for strong countercyclical protection of farm profitability in the 2007 law.

But he also said the direct payments have been getting notoriety for, among other things, going to farms that no longer raise crops, as well as to farms that may not need them.

"No matter how much money you make, you still get a government payment," Harkin said, referring to the direct payment program. "Is it wise to do that?"

Varel Bailey, an Anita, Iowa, farmer who spoke on behalf of American Farmland Trust, called for major changes in the next farm bill.

"We only have this opportunity every 20 to 25 years to make significant change," he said.

AFT supports a revenue-based safety net that is similar to one proposed by the National Corn Growers Association, except that revenue would be calculated at a national, not county level. Bailey also suggested establishing a guaranteed loan program for conservation practices in order to stretch federal dollars.

Bailey said wheat and barley growers in the Great Plains are likely to fight shifting direct payment funds to other programs.

"With depressed yields and drought and everything, direct payments are the only thing these guys have seen," he said.

Steve Killpack, a 22-year-old who farms 700 acres with his father near Neola, Iowa, said that soil conservation has to be the top priority of the next farm bill. He does favor diverting funds from direct payments, counter-cyclical payments and loan deficiency payments in order to expand the current conservation security program.

Those programs encourage farming "as many base acres as possible," he said.

"The soil is one of those resources that cannot be built up and it's been altered a lot over the last 100 to 150 years we have been farming it," he said.

Another young farmer, Matt Schuitteman of Sioux Center, Iowa, who is the state young farmer chairman for Iowa Farm Bureau, said young farmers need the security of the safety net programs included in the 2002 farm bill.

He added that on his family's farm, corn production costs have gone up from $280 an acre in 1998 to $454 an acre this year. "Our safety net in the 2002 farm bill has kind of fallen behind a bit," he said.

Harkin told him he doesn't want to weaken the safety net but he wonders if there's a better way to have a safety net.

Schuitteman said that funds for the Conservation Reserve Program could be used more effectively. Taking half of the money used in the general CRP in Iowa and putting into continuous CRP for buffer strips would protect 8!% of the state’s total miles of creeks and streams, he said.

Chris Petersen, a Clear Lake Iowa farmer who is president of Iowa Farmers Union, called for a strong competition title in the next farm bill. "We need to revitalize competition out here and it's not being done."

Iowa Farmers Union also supports strong limits on commodity program payments, as does the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Nebraska.

"Without real limits, farm programs work against us," said John Crabtree, a spokesman for the Center.

The Center also supports legislation to strengthen competition in the next farm bill, including S. 622, the Competitive and Fair Agricultural Markets Act and S. 305, which would ban meatpacker ownership of livestock.

"In a nation where packers and processors own and control all of the livestock, what need is there if farmers and ranchers?" Crabtree asked.

Two members of the Senate Agriculture Committee came to Council Bluffs, Iowa, Saturday looking for ideas on how to make changes in the next farm bill on a limited budget. Farmers and conservationists who testified at the hearing didn't come up short.

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