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The end's in sight: Conferees approve farm bill

Members of a conference committee from the Senate and House of Representatives on Thursday announced they've reached an agreement on the new farm bill. Now, the bill moves to the Senate and House floors before going on to the Oval Office for the president's signature.

Leaders said they are now working to ensure strong support in both chambers leading up to full House and Senate votes, which should come next week.

"This bill is long overdue and we need to see it through to the finish," House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) said Thursday. "We're working hard in the house to get a good vote."

The commodity title of the conferees' bill eliminates the "three-entity rule and, according to the office of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), "implements reformed payment caps for commodity program benefits" and "provides producers of eligible commodities an option to participate in a revenue-based countercyclical program."

Though the full details of the conference committee's agreement were not released Thursday, Senate Ag committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said while the hallmark of the bill will likely be its increase in nutrition spending, conservation and commodity programs -- some of which in farm legislation for the first time -- would see significant funding increases. This includes a new organic title as well as $1 billion devoted toward specialty crops and new supports for biofuels.

"We authorized $4.4 billion for conservation funds. Over the next 10 years, the Environmental Quality Enhancement Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) will have $27.7 billion in total spending. We will enroll about 13 million acres in CSP every year," Harkin said of some of the committee's agreement. "All-time high gas prices are wreaking havoc on family budgets, but without biofuels, prices at the pump would be 50 cents higher. This farm bill will ramp up agriculture's capacity to produce renewable energy."

Specifically, Harkin said the new bill would significantly incresase production efforts with "biomass and crop byproducts other than grain."

By the numbers, Peterson said Thursday the conferees' proposed bill increases nutrition spending by 7.5% over the 2002 farm bill, while the total amount of the approximately $300 billion, 10-year legislation would cut funding for the commodity program, crop insurance and disaster assistance to 16.1%, down from 28% in the '02 bill.

"We have people who say, to this day, that all of [farm program funding] goes to farmers. The truth is, out of $300 billion, $36 to $40 billion goes to farmers," Peterson said. "The majority goes to nutrition and a good chunk to conservation."

While Peterson admitted Thursday that the bill doesn't go far enough to limit farm program payments, his colleague in the Senate, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, said the new bill's commodity title will continue what he said was most effective out of the 2002 bill.

"We saved over $20 billion in the commodity title in the '02 bill. I expect we'll see big savings this time," Chambliss said. "We developed a very market-oriented process so our farmers and ranchers can achieve income from the marketplace rather than from Washington. That's what they want and that's what we want."

The conference committee's bill now faces floor votes in the House and Senate. Members seemed confident their respective chambers would approve the bill, even though a veto threat remains. Still, Harkin said he's still hoping for acceptance in the executive branch.

"This bill goes much more than halfway to accommodate the president's wishes and concerns, and I hope he signs it," he said.

Members of a conference committee from the Senate and House of Representatives on Thursday announced they've reached an agreement on the new farm bill. Now, the bill moves to the Senate and House floors before going on to the Oval Office for the president's signature.

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