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46331

Harkin's roots to conservation run deep

Cumming, Iowa, a town of 169 not far south of the state's capital of Des Moines, is still surrounded by pastures and corn and soybean fields.

When Tom Harkin was growing up here in the 1940s, it was a different place -- younger and more isolated and more rural. A visit with Harkin at his home, with a view of a ripening soybean field at the edge of his backyard, sheds light on why the U.S. senator who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, is one of the nation's most powerful advocates for conservation.

Harkin and his wife, Ruth, live in a modest two-bedroom house with restored cedar shake siding.

"This is the house I was born in," he says while sitting on the back deck on a warm September morning. "Six kids were born in this house. We're really close to Des Moines, but in those days, we just had dirt roads our here. We had one gravel road that went to Norwalk."

Looking out over his backyard, Harkin recalls where a chicken coop and a small barn once stood. "We always had some pigs. We had a dairy cow," he recalls. While his father, Patrick, worked in coal mines as close as a mile away, his mother, Frances, was busy making butter, canning meat, and gardening.

Harkin doesn't recall any one event that made him a convert to protecting the nation's soil and water resources. As a boy, he and his friends would swim and fish in the nearby Raccoon and North Rivers. And they went hunting in the trees along fence rows.

"Years later, after high school, after college, after the military, after law school, I would come back here and everything had changed," he says. "The water was dirty. There were no fence rows."

Harkin learned more about existing conservation programs early in his Congressional career, as a Representative for an Iowa district that at the time included a hilly region along the Missouri River in Southwest Iowa. There he saw how farmers and local communities worked with the small dams and terraces of USDA watershed protection projects. "You can have your cake and eat it, too. You can save soil and have production and good water," he says.

After he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984, Harkin began to leave his own mark on the programs of the Soil Conservation Service, now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He authored the Water Quality Incentives Program in the 1990 farm bill, a precursor of today's EQIP, or Environmental Quality Incentives Program. In the 2002 farm bill, Harkin succeeded in starting a completely new, Conservation Security Program. This year is was renewed and expanded, under the name, the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Cumming, Iowa, a town of 169 not far south of the state's capital of Des Moines, is still surrounded by pastures and corn and soybean fields.

Both EQIP and CSP are working lands programs, in contrast to the biggest conservation program, the Conservation Reserve Program, which makes rental payments to retire cropland to grass and trees. EQIP helps pay for permanent improvements, such as a well to provide water in a rotational grazing system. CSP makes payments for such conservation practices as crop rotations, cover crops or reduced tillage. The top payment available under the 2008 farm bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act, is $40,000, down from $45,000 in 2002.

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