Lawmakers are looking ahead to next year’s Farm Bill reauthorization. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood on how the bill could influence conservation practices on the nation’s farms.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The federal government pays farmers billions of dollars each year to take conservation measures on their land. This money is part of the overall Farm Support and Crop Subsidy Program authorized in the Omnibus Farm Act. Many of these programs are so popular that they quickly use up the dollars or acreage allotted to them each year. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the nations farm legislation, a number of voices are calling for increases in spending for conservation. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Living on Earth's Washington correspondent, joins us now. Hi, Anna.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hey, Steve.
CURWOOD: First, give us a sense of what these programs do.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In a simplest sense, these programs provide incentives for farmers to protect and restore their land. They're all voluntary, and generally, they involve some combination of financial and technical assistance. One example is the Wetlands Reserve Program. In this case, the Department of Agriculture compensates farmers for restoring their cropland back into wetland. And then there's WHIP, or Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and this, like it sounds, helps farmers develop land into habitat for fish and wildlife. Probably the most popular program is the Conservation Reserve Program, and this involves farmers taking erodible cropland out of production and replanting it with grasses or other vegetation.
CURWOOD: If these programs involve taking farmland out of production, why are they so popular with farmers?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it's an opportunity for them both to protect their land and to get paid for it, and most of the time the money they get is more than they'd be getting for planting and harvesting crops on land that's often marginal in the first place. There isn't much to lose. What that means, though, is that conservation payments are now the third largest type of assistance that the Farm Bill hands out. For instance, in the last five years, farmers received 8 and a quarter billion dollars. The only payments larger than that are for corn and wheat. The problem is the programs are so popular that the number of farmers wanting to participate has exceeded the money, or, in some cases, the acreage, that was allotted for the programs in the last Farm Bill
CURWOOD: So, what are the chances of getting more money for this program?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, there are two ways that could happen. In the first scenario, a legislator would need to step forward during the appropriations process-- that's what's been going on now-- and offer an amendment to authorize more money or more acreage for these programs. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen, so the next bet is really with the new Farm Bill that's up for reauthorization next year. Hearings in Congress are starting on this now, there are bills being introduced, and this will be the chance to set new spending and acreage levels on all of these programs. There's kind of a coalition gearing up right now to fight for an increase in those levels. That includes environmental and religious groups, and others as wide-ranging as the National Rifle Association.
CURWOOD: Now, where does this coalition get support in the Congress itself?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Tom Harkin, who's the Democratic Senator from Iowa, is now the Chair of the Agriculture Committee. He took over when the party balance shifted in the Senate a few weeks ago, and he's calling for a Farm Bill in which conservation is the centerpiece. He says he wants to beef up programs like the ones we talked about so that more farmers and more land can be involved. On the House side, 140 members from both parties signed a letter this week in which they urged increased funding for conservation in the new Farm Bill. But we'll have to keep an eye on Larry Combest of Texas, in particular. He's the Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, and he's been promising a Farm Bill draft by the end of the summer. At this point, he's been focusing mainly on revising the commodities subsidies programs, and he hasn't recommended any specifics yet on conservation.
CURWOOD: Tell me about the opposition here. What are the interests who would rather not see an increase in funding for these conservation programs?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, if you ask the conservation groups, they'll say that the resistance comes from the agribusiness lobby, but these groups will tell you that they do support conservation programs; in fact, they've testified before Congress to that effect. But-- and this is where you see that different groups favor different kinds of conservation-- they don't support he programs that take land out of production. Instead, they favor payments that will help farmers take care of their working farmland. And don't forget, the reality here is, for agribusiness, the Farm Bill has traditionally been where they get their crop payments. So unless the overall agriculture budget increases, more money for conservation means less money for commodity crops. And up until now, the balance has been heavily in favor of commodities. Wheat and corn farmers, for example, got about 38 billion dollars over the last five years, whereas conversation programs got 8 and a quarter billion, so everyone's waiting to see if that balance is going to shift. And I don't think anyone is feeling very confident that everyone is going to be satisfied by the same pot of money. So, the battle over the Farm Bill is really going to take place on two levels: first, how much of the overall budget will be allotted for conservation, and then what types of conservation will receive the most money?
CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much, Anna.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth's Correspondent in Washington, D.C.
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