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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farm Bill

Air Date: Week of

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As Congress puts the final touches on a new Farm Bill, some lawmakers are calling it a victory for conservation. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum talks with host Steve Curwood about why small farmers and environmental groups disagree.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Congress is putting the final touches on a new farm bill. The last bill was crafted in 1996 and was dubbed "Freedom to Farm." It was designed to wean farmers off government payments, but low crop prices resulted in emergency bailouts and sent lawmakers back to the drawing board. What they came up with looks pretty much like the pre-reform, subsidy-laden farm bill, but it also contains some increases for conservation programs. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Anna, lawmakers were promising that this new farm bill could be the first major piece of environmental legislation of the 21st century. How did it turn out?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well Steve, many of those lawmakers are still calling it that. This bill takes more land out of production and it adds acres for wildlife habitat. It increases payments to help farmers deal with pollution, and it also adds two new conservation programs: one that would protect grassland, another that pays farmers for good stewardship on land that’s still in production. This plan came from the chair of the Senate Ag Committee, Tom Harkin of Iowa. Here he is touting the bill at a recent press conference:

HARKIN: In this bill we have increased conservation more than any farm bill in history, almost an 80 percent increase in our conservation programs.

CURWOOD: So, based on what Senator Harkin is saying, I’m assuming that environmental groups are pleased with how this bill turned out.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, you might think that but they say the money that’s going into conservation is still far below what’s needed to reach all the farmers who want to do conservation work on their land. There’s a huge backlog for these programs. Particularly small farmers and those who don’t grow the kinds of crops that entitle them to subsidies; often, conservation money is the only help they can get from the federal government. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the money in this bill is still going to the biggest, wealthiest growers of staple crops. These are commodity crops like corn, cotton, sugar, wheat. Suzanne Fleek, with the Environmental Working Group, told me the new commodity title alone could be considered one of the biggest anti-environmental bills passed in recent years.

FLEEK: By eliminating key reforms to reduce subsidy payments to the largest agri-business, and still allowing farmers to crop new land, will mean that acres and acres of wildlife habitat, grasslands and wetlands will be converted to commodity crop production, increased use of fertilizers and herbicides that eventually will get into everyone’s rivers, lakes, and drinking water.

CURWOOD: Anna, I need you to clarify something here. I thought there was one program in the bill that’s meant to deal with water pollution problems. What happened to that?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, you’re right, and I think you’re talking about the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQUIP. The worry there, again, is that the program seems to have been co-opted by some of the biggest corporate livestock producers. A lot of the small farmers and environmental groups say the payment limit’s been set so high in this bill— it’s going from $50,000 in the current bill to $450,000 in the new one— that companies like Smithfield and Cargill are going to be able to use this program to help them comply with laws like the Clean Water Act that some people argue that they should be able to meet on their own. Industry argues that conservation money shouldn’t be available for some and not for others. This is Dave Salmonsen. He’s with the American Farm Bureau, which supported the higher EQUIP limits.

SALMONSEN: I think across the range— larger farms, smaller farms— with this what we’ve done, which is significantly increase the funding, we could address a whole range of projects we couldn’t even seek to address before.

CURWOOD: Anna, what do farmers make of this bill?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, I won’t even try to speak for the hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country, but I think their response is pretty predictable. Farmers who grow corn and cotton and other staple crops, for them this bill’s good news. For farmers who grow fruits and vegetables and specialty crops, there’s not that much in it for them.

I also called some of the ranchers I met when I was out in South Dakota last summer. These are people who have been watching a lot of the grassland in their state get plowed up and planted into corn and soybeans for the government subsidies, and their feeling is, even with the couple hundred million dollars in this bill that are going to protect grasslands, compared with the 50 billion that are going into crops, they think they’re going to see more land be dug up. This is Jack Freeman. He’s a rancher in Faith, South Dakota.

FREEMAN: We did get a list off the Internet of who the big winners in this area were, you know, that were collecting in the $600,000 and the $100,000 range. And you can tell it when you drive by their machinery reserves; it’s pretty evident who’s making it work for them.

CURWOOD: Anna, before you go, there is one aspect of the bill that hasn’t got much attention I’d like you to tell us about. Those are the incentives that are in it to help farmers produce renewable energy and become more energy-efficient.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That’s right. You’re talking about the energy title, and it’s the first time there’s been an energy title in a farm bill. I think that’s partly due to the politics of national security right now. I also think it’s due to the growing power of the ethanol lobby here in Washington. Ethanol got a big boost, you might remember, in the Senate energy bill a couple weeks ago. It gets another one in this farm bill. And there’s also some money to help farmers increase their use of wind and solar power. Overall, it’s not a lot of money. In total, there’s about $400 million for these energy programs.

But for the people who worked to get in here, it’s a huge step. They point out that only 20 years ago there was no conservation title in the farm bill. Now, as you’ve seen, it’s a regular part of the debate, and there’s $17 billion for it.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum covers Washington for Living on Earth. Thanks, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You’re welcome.




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