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Great Lakes Article:

Senate Passes Farm Bill That Doubles Conservation Spending

By Cat Lazaroff

02/14/2002 - The U.S. Senate has passed a farm bill that boost subsidies for growers of staple crops, and doubles spending for farmland conservation. The bill also includes provisions to protect water supplies from agricultural runoff, preserve wetlands, and promote water conservation for the protection of wildlife.

  The bill, authored by Senator Tom Harkin, is in marked contrast to the House version of farm legislation, providing far more money to help farmers safeguard clean water, protect wetlands and reduce suburban sprawl.

Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, says the bill improves current policies for farmers and rural communities by protecting farm income, conserving resources, boosting economic growth and creating new jobs.

"This new bipartisan farm bill is a important victory for the economy of rural America, and it couldn't come at a more crucial time," said Harkin after the Senate voted 58-40 to approve the bill. "Our family farmers and rural communities are struggling and this bill offers some hope for the future. This is the economic recovery package rural and small town America needs. It will bring new jobs, new markets and greater opportunity."

The bill would authorize $45 billion in new spending over the next five years, increasing traditional subsidies for growers of cotton, wheat and other grains. The legislation includes a number of new subsidies for producers of honey, wool, milk and other commodities.

  The Bush administration criticized the Senate passed bill for spending too much money in the first five years of its 10 year span, leaving little for future programs. President George W. Bush said Wednesday that he was "disappointed" in the Senate passed bill, saying it "doesn't get the job done" to support the nation's farmers.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman agreed, adding, "the House passed bill spreads the funding much more evenly over a 10 year period." A Congressional agreement reached last year would commit $73.5 billion over the next decade to farm programs. The Senate bill would spend $45 billion of that money before 2007, compared to $38 billion over the next five years in the House version.

Veneman said the Bush administration will work with the House-Senate conference committee to craft a compromise between the two versions of the legislation that "promotes expanded trade, encourages improved conservation, establishes farm savings accounts and adheres to the budget agreement."

Senate Republicans opposed many aspects of the bill, and only nine Republican senators, whose states would benefit from the new subsidies supported by the bill, voted in its favor.

"The Daschle-Harkin farm bill creates incentives for overproduction by making larger payments to a few big farms thus guaranteeing overall lower prices for farm commodities and perpetual calls for more assistance by federal lawmakers," said Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

  However, the bill "does include good provisions that increase the U.S. commitment to conservation, credit for young farmers, job creating rural development, nutrition, agricultural research, biomass ethanol and renewable energy," Lugar added.

In a change from past policy and from the House version of the legislation, Harkin's bill would limit the total amount of subsidy payments that any one farm could receive, capping that support at $275,000. The measure would save an estimated $1.3 billion over 10 years that will be divided among the food stamp program, agriculture research, a beginner farmer program and crop insurance.

The bill "represents a bipartisan commitment to moving farm policy in a new direction by including meaningful payment limits which will help ensure that more of the support gets to the farmers who actually need help," said Harkin.

Harkin's bill would also double federal spending on farmland conservation over the next ten years.

"I'm proud that this bill makes good on our commitment to make conservation a centerpiece of farm policy," Harkin said. "That's good for our family farmers and its good for our environment."

  Harkin's bill would increase wetlands protected by the Wetlands Reserve Program to 250,000 acres per year, 100,000 acres per year more than the House passed bill. Wetlands act as a filter to clean polluted water, protect against flooding and provide wildlife habitat.

The Senate bill would increase funding to protect farmland from suburban sprawl, boosting it to $250 million a year by the end of the five year period. The House bill authorizes just $50 million per year.

"The House turned its back on family farmers, ranchers, and clean water but we are grateful to the Senate and Senator Harkin for working to protect us," said Bob Warrick, a family rancher from Nebraska who chairs the Sierra Club's agriculture committee. "While ironing out the differences in a conference committee, the House should adopt the Senate conservation measures."

The Senate bill incorporates a new provision, the Conservation Security Act, which rewards farmers who protect water, air, soil and wildlife. It also provides for an important water conservation program, which will be crucial in protecting habitat in dry areas, and subsidies for farmers who volunteer to reduce irrigation to protect water supplies for endangered fish.

The Senate bill also makes major improvements over the House's provision concerning animal waste. Manure runoff from fields and leaky storage pits is a major source of water pollution.

The House bill would provide billions of dollars in federal tax subsidies to large, industrial scale livestock operations controlled by major corporations. In contrast, the Senate bill dedicates more money to smaller, family sized livestock farmers, to help them stop pollution by building manure management systems, thanks to an amendment by Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.

  Michelle Kenyon, coordinator of the Iowa Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, said her group is "very pleased with the inclusion, for the first time, of an energy title in the Farm Bill." The Senate bill includes incentives supporting renewable power production on farms, including wind, solar and biomass energy.

"The resources available in this bill will be readily used to promote and develop clean, renewable sources of energy that are good for the environment, good for diversifying our energy sources, and good for our rural and farm economy," added Kenyon.

The Senate also attached a provision known as the School Environment Protection Act, which aims to protect children from pesticides and promote safer pest management practices in schools. The measure would require schools to adopt integrated pest management policies, notify students, parents and teachers of the timing and type of pesticide use, and offer information on the adverse effects of pesticides, among other steps.

"We hope that the Agriculture Conference Committee will now see the importance of embracing this piece of legislation. Children, teachers and school staff deserve the basic health and safety protections that this measure would provide," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington based public interest group.

Animal rights advocates applauded several measures included in the Senate farm bill, including provisions to combat animal fighting, to address inhumane treatment of farm animals, to combat some abuses at puppy mills, and to halt the international trade in bear parts.

However, the final Senate bill also includes a measure to exclude protection from Animal Welfare Act standards for birds, rats and mice used in research.

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