Since the leadership shift in the Senate prospects for a rewrite of the 96-Farm Act have been on the rise. Much of that is due to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the new chair of the Senate Agriculture committee. A long-time critic of current farm law, Harkin is insistent government farm policy have a conservation focus and that it be extended to here-to-now unsubsidized farmers like livestock producers, fruit and vegetable growers.
The new Senate agenda is also affecting the Republican-led house. This week a house sub-committee was taking testimony, endorsing the concept of the so-called "Conservation Security Act" that would pay farmers to apply conservation practices to their farming operations.
Ralph Grossi: "Our fundamental message to this committee today is that conservation should be the focal point of the next Farm Bill.:"
Conservationists and local government authorities lent testimony this week to the rising sentiment for a conservation-based 2002 Farm Bill. Current farm policy, they argued, is out-of-balance ... with the majority of government funding directed toward the mass production of specific commodities, or to conservation programs that idle, rather than preserve, farmland.
Ralph Grossi: "The American consumer is not demanding more wheat, corn and soybeans. The American consumer is demanding clean air and water, wildlife habitat and open space around their communities. The next farm bill can provide the funds to help farmers achieve those needs of all Americans."
One witness noted that 8 percent of the nation's producers receive 50 percent of government farm subsidies while operating on 32 percent of the land. Future farm policy, he said, must be based more on land stewardship and accountability to taxpayers.
Craig Cox: "To do that, we think we really need to make room in farm policy this time for a program that is based in stewardship rather than based on a collection of commodities that a producer happens to produce."
Specifically, the panelists called for modification to the Conservation Reserve and EQIP programs, increased funding for technical assistance, and, above all, more flexibility in allowing conservation programs to be directed from the local or county level.
They said generic, computer-generated conservation models mandated by the federal government are impersonal and often impractical to the farmers and ranchers who implement them.
Jamie Clover Adams: "... you're changing people's habits and you have to change their heart and their mind in order to make a difference and you can't do that by shoving it down their throat. You have to have them at the table to help make the decisions."
Subcommittee chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, warned there may NOT be enough funding available to pay for all the conservation measures being called for. He cited the need for greater cost-sharing between state and federal governments as the clamor grows for broader farm conservation efforts.
To cover the budget demands of the ambitious conservation proposal, many in congress want to restrict the total amount of government subsidy that farmers can receive. Proponents of lowering the ceiling say large payments effectively subsidize giant farms that are more a threat to rural communities than an asset.
However, there are proponents of raising the payment cap. And, one such advocate is House Agriculture Committee Chair, Larry Combest. The congressman's Texas district includes recipients of some of the largest farm subsidy checks.