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

Farm Bill Overhaul

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with Alan Freedman with the Congressional Quarterly on the overhaul of the US Farm Bill.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Everybody eats, of course, though in a modern industrial society very few people farm. And that has been a major problem with the Federal Farm Program. Most voters don't seem to be particularly concerned about farm supports, unless they're complaining about big government. Not only does farming have a profound impact on our food security, it has a major effect on the environment as well, and debate on these matters is one reason that Congress had been stalled on producing a new farm bill since the old one expired last fall. For the first time since the New Deal, Congress has given the Federal Farm Program a complete overhaul. Government subsidies based on price supports for many crops are gone. What's left are some flat payments that will run out in 7 years. After that, farmers will be on their own in the marketplace. Getting the new farm program through Congress tested just about all concerned, says Alan Freedman of Congressional Quarterly magazine.

FREEDMAN: It's extremely difficult because it takes on some of the most entrenched political forces in the country, which is the family farmers, the big farmers. For years and years and years the Democrats really protected the Federal subsidy system. They argued this on policy grounds, but in reality it was because the farmers who received Federal subsidies represented an extremely important political constituency for the Democratic Party, primarily from rural Democrats in the South, who are a vanishing breed. The Republicans have come in and attempted to impose more of a free market philosophy on America's farmers, and there are a number of Democrats, primarily from the East, who think that's a very positive step. Sure, there are big problems with the bill, but I think the important point is that we have here a major policy shift in Washington, and for many years that would seem to be almost impossible to accomplish.

CURWOOD: With the market being opened up, who's at risk here? Small farmers, or big farmers?

FREEDMAN: Well, you know, traditionally one would argue that small farmers would be at risk, since market competition tends to benefit larger public interests. But the farm bill also has a number of complicated provisions in it and protections for certain markets that many people in reality don't actually know what the end result will be, and that there is a sense on Capitol Hill that this is an issue that will have to be revisited sooner than 7 years.

CURWOOD: Now, our nation's production of food and fiber has a major impact on the environment. And I'm asking, Alan Freedman, what impact will this new farm bill have on the environment, do you think?

FREEDMAN: Well, environmentalists are not doing cartwheels over the provisions in this bill. This is not sort of a totally green bill. At the same time, given where this bill could have ended up and the nature of politics, particularly in the House, the environmentalists did pretty well.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about some specifics here. First of all, what would this bill do in terms of protecting water quality?

FREEDMAN: A very interesting provision here is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which essentially would make Federal money available to farmers to establish buffers, for example, buffers of land between their agricultural production land and let's say a stream bed. So for example, if I am a farmer and I'm producing and I'm using pesticides on my land, I could simply use a strip of land as a kind of buffer so that there wouldn't be harmful runoff into stream beds, therefore causing environmental degradation. That's -- this is a provision that environmentalists like, and it's also a provision that a lot of the Democrats and many moderate Republicans who advocated it are very happy with and are pointing to as a key example of how this bill would help the environment.

CURWOOD: Now, there's a lot of concern about the Conservation Reserve Program --

FREEDMAN: That's correct.

CURWOOD: Land set aside to protect critical habitat and such in your farms.

FREEDMAN: Right. Right.

CURWOOD: What happens to that?

FREEDMAN: Well, it essentially would be reauthorized, allowing for 36.4 million acres in the country to be idle. This is environmentally sensitive land, and farmers could basically be paid to idle or not farm this land. And environmentalists again think this is a pretty good provision for fairly obvious reasons. Farmers, instead of having to raise crops on land that might cause potential harm to the environment, can simply leave the land alone, and not harm the environment in the process.

CURWOOD: Now, there was a lot of concern after the great Mississippi floods that farmers were farming some wetlands that should be left alone to act as sponges for high water.


CURWOOD: What would this bill do in terms of restoring some of those wetlands?

FREEDMAN: This bill would restore wetlands previously drained, and the program reauthorized with both permanent and temporary easements would equal about 975,000 acres.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the Everglades? President Clinton has been announcing a program there. What does this bill do about the Everglades?

FREEDMAN: This bill would put in place $200 million to buy back land around the Everglades. And President Clinton had wanted a broader program. He wanted to put a tax on sugar to do about twice as much in terms of real money. But there was a compromise, and $200 million is included in this bill for protection of the Everglades.

CURWOOD: Did Bob Dole get a piece of this?

FREEDMAN: Bob Dole got a piece of this in large part because Florida is a very important state in the Presidential elections, and there was a lot of pressure on Dole to move a bill that would be friendly to Florida. There's also a lot of protection of both parties to move the Farm Bill. So those 2 interests sort of came together in terms of the Everglades provision.

CURWOOD: Before you go, Alan, I just wanted to ask you about the Utah wilderness and other land bills. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey succeeded to kill this bill, essentially; a lot of people were in favor of it. How and why did he succeed?

FREEDMAN: Well, he succeeded for a number of reasons. The actual, the Utah Wilderness Lands Bill actually ended up getting caught up in a debate over the minimum wage, and without going into a lot of complicated procedural explanations, in short the Republicans miscalculated and were forced to pull the Utah lands bill, as well as an omnibus lands bill to which it was attached from the floor, because of a controversy over the minimum wage. I should say that there is some doubt about whether this bill could ever get through the Senate, and clearly Bradley's people and the Democrats have made this a major target and believe they have the votes to stop it. I suspect that they're probably right, but what this means for the Utah lands bill is that the chances of this bill getting through this year are somewhat diminished. In fact, this could be the end of it. The key is to watch and see if this bill comes back in either April or May. If they can't get a bill through the floor in that time period, I would say it's probably dead for the year.

CURWOOD: Alan Freedman covers the environment for Congressional Quarterly. I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

FREEDMAN: Thank you.



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