Editorial: Bigger farms or cleaner streams?

  • Updated: September 8, 2007 - 11:46 PM

Senators face a choice in 2007 farm bill.

In 2005 the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent more than $100 million in crop subsidies to southern Minnesota, including $1.7 million to a single corporate farm. Meanwhile, scores of farmers who wanted help converting to organic and conservation agriculture were turned away for lack of funds.

This is a terrible expression of national priorities and an indefensible misuse of the taxpayer's money. It must change as Congress finishes work on major farm legislation this fall, and Minnesota's two U.S. senators are in a position to help as action moves to the Senate this month.

Very modest changes in the big farm programs could give Minnesota cleaner trout streams, improved wildlife habitat and a healthier food supply.

One version of the 2007 farm bill, assembled by Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has cleared the U.S. House with important new funding for certain conservation programs and a stab at capping subsidy payments. But to get his bill through the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson had to satisfy a mob of competing industry and regional interests. As a result, its payment caps are inadequate and its funding for certain conservation programs is insufficient.

The Bush administration has proposed a novel and intriguing device to limit payments to large farmers, but Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in a recent interview that the White House would also support a fine bipartisan plan to cap payments that has been proposed in the Senate. That concept, developed by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, would cap commodity payments at $250,000 per farmer. That would free up billions of dollars for conservation assistance, valuable nutrition programs -- or simply reducing the stubborn federal budget deficit.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has drafted an ambitious plan to consolidate and enlarge federal conservation programs in a way that would reduce paperwork for farmers and reduce the backlog of applicants for conservation assistance. Senate insiders say that Harkin will face a struggle getting that plan out of his own committee, which has plenty of advocates for traditional commodity subsidies. But in the interest of a more balanced and ecological farm policy, he deserves the support of Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar.

Back in May, advocates hoped this might be the year for dramatic reform of federal farm subsidies -- crop prices are strong, farm income is high, and an unusual coalition of budget hawks and ecumenical groups were putting the heat on lawmakers. Now that lawmakers have entered a busy fall session, it appears that radical change is unlikely. But that doesn't mean progress is impossible.

  • TURNED DOWN

    In 2003 more than 900 Minnesota farmers requesting help for conservation projects were turned away for lack of federal funds, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Its farm subsidy database can be found at ewg.org.

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