While the Freedom to Farm Act was intended to make farmers more market-oriented, its system of loan deficiency payments for grains --especially oilseed, has made farmers produce for the government. The result has been bumper crops and burdensome supplies underwritten by billions of tax dollars, largely to the benefit an agricultural industrial complex. The expensive programs have become a source of embarrassment to farmers and farm state lawmakers.
That's one of the reasons Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's so-called Conservation Security Act is receiving such a warm reception in D.C. The other is he becomes Agriculture committee Chairman next week.
His measure would effectively pay farmers to employ conservation practices. The proposal is politically a much more palatable subsidy than traditional payments tied to production.
The Conservation Security Act is designed to work in conjunction with other federal conservation programs and doesn't take money away from other federal conservation plans.
However, unlike some of the other programs, the proposed 2001 Act will throw a government safety net to all farming operations -- including those who grow fruits and vegetables -- a group of farmers which have been largely ignored by government subsidy programs.
Farmers would be able to enter conservation contracts at three levels:
The "tier 1" level is a five-year contract where practices include nutrient management, soil conservation and wildlife habitat management. The annual payment to a farmer is capped at $20,000.
(Slug "moo" on the range)
"Tier 2" conservation includes tier 1 practices, plus rotational grazing, buffer strips and windbreaks and wetland restoration. Farmers must enter contracts for five to ten years with an annual payment cap of $35,000.
"Tier 3" requires implementation of tiers 1 and 2 plus address all aspects of air, land, water and wildlife to foster long-term sustainability of natural resources. Farmers would enter 5 to 10 year contracts with annual payment of $50,000.
The proposal is receiving at least tepid support from traditional farm groups that think farmers should be reimbursed for conservation farming practices. But most don't view the Conservation Security Act as policy that will supplant traditional farm law provisions geared to production.
Senator Harkin has been an opponent of market transition payments that the government currently pays farmers to help them make the shift to a market economy. And the Senator, along with his prairie populist colleges, has called for a lower ceiling on the total amount of government money farmers can receive. The question that remains is how much will the Harkin conservation proposal influence those policy staples in next farm bill?