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Ag committee chairmen say they're strong on conservation

The new Democratic leaders of the ag committees in Congress agreed on the need for stronger federal programs to move the country toward ethanol production with switchgrass and other soil-conserving crops in a joint appearance at Pheasants Forever's Pheasant Fest held over the weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

They also pledged to not lower commodity price supports and cast doubt on whether Congress would approve a new World Trade Organization agreement soon.

Conservation programs, especially the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that has shifted about 36 million acres of erosion-prone cropland into grass and trees, are strongly supported by the hunters' organization which also raises funds for private wildlife conservation efforts. About 12% of Pheasants Forever members are also farmers. And with corn-based ethanol driving land prices and rents upward, there's concern in this group that farmers will shift land out of the CRP as contracts expire, or that Congress will spend less on CRP. Livestock groups and grain exporters have already expressed concern about the effects of high corn prices on their businesses.

"The first bulwark you've got against reducing the conservation reserve program is Collin Peterson and Tom Harkin," Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin told an overflow crowd of more than 350 at a farm bill forum Saturday. Representative Collin Peterson, the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee was on the panel, along with Representative Leonard Boswell (D-IA) another Ag Committee member.

Peterson said he's hearing from people who want to reduce CRP acres in order to grow more corn. But out of 36 million acres in the CRP, only 5-6 million could be planted to crops without erosion problems, he said.

"I'm not interested in planting more acres that are going to cause us more crop insurance and disaster problems," he said.

Still, Peterson and Harkin acknowledged some challenges for conservation programs. Peterson said the biggest hurdle will be the budget.

"We are in a new world, at least in the House. We have re-established pay-go rules," he said, referring to pay-as-you go requirements that the cost of any new programs be offset with cuts to other programs or with tax increases. "That's probably going to hit us hardest in agriculture."

Harkin said that he's trying to convince the Senate Budget Committee and the White House to commit new budget resources to producing energy crops such as switchgrass. His goal is to add back about $20 billion for the next five-year farm bill. That includes about $16 billion not spent on commodity programs as was expected when the last farm bill took effect in 2002, and about $4 billion that Congress cut from the Conservation Security Program, a new program for working farms and ranches.

In a speech to Pheasants Forever members last Friday evening, Harkin suggested that support for cellulosic ethanol will be a big part of his next farm bill.

"We see a lot of interesting forces at work here folks. I'm not going to lie to you. The single most important thing we can do for our country is to become energy independent," he said.

"I'm committed this year to putting in our farm bill the strongest provisions I can that we move toward cellulosic ethanol," he said in his speech. Using grasses to produce ethanol will provide energy and maintain wildlife cover, he said.

At the farm bill forum, Harkin and Peterson seemed to differ slightly on exactly how the nation would move toward cellulosic ethanol production. Harkin said that Conservation Security Program funds might be used to make transition payments to farmers experimenting with switchgrass and other crops for cellulosic ethanol. Along with potential payments from cellulosic ethanol plants, it might be incentive enough to keep some higher quality CRP land from going into corn when those contracts expire, he said.

Peterson seems to favor a new program that would create additional acres outside of the CRP for experimentation. "What I'd like to do is add acres on top of CRP to do some experimentation," he said. He also said that acreage might have to be concentrated in one or two locations in a state, because of the cost of shipping biomass to an ethanol plant.

Peterson said one difference between him and Harkin is his view of the conservation security program. He said he'd like to see more conservation improvements on farms and ranches in order to get CSP payments. CSP was a program that Harkin championed in the 2002 farm bill. Harkin said that the law's original idea was to move producers enrolled in CSP through three levels of improvements, or tiers. As more improvements are made, farmers would advance from Tier I to II, to III. But USDA has administered the program to start payments to farms in Tier III, the highest level of the program, first.

When asked about price support levels for commodities in the next farm bill, Peterson and Harkin said it's too early to be specific.

"We're never going to go down," Peterson said. "We will look at that, but from my point of view we are not going to reduce the safety net. We might look at rebalancing."

Several commodity groups, including those representing wheat and soybeans, had said that current price support levels encourage planting of other crops.

On World Trade Organization negotiations, Harkin and Peterson expressed doubt that the current round of negotiations will succeed.

"I just think this WTO agreement is dead in the water," Peterson said.

One deal-killer could be the expiration of President George W. Bush's Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) on June 30. That authority limits congressional debate on the details of any trade agreement, in effect, giving the Administration the authority to negotiate a trade treaty before Congress has the chance to accept or reject the whole agreement.

"In the Senate, we're not going to extend TPA in the manner it is right now," Harkin said.

Added Peterson, "The House won't either."

The new Democratic leaders of the ag committees in Congress agreed on the need for stronger federal programs to move the country toward ethanol production with switchgrass and other soil-conserving crops in a joint appearance at Pheasants Forever's Pheasant Fest held over the weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

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