Senate Passes Farm Bill Strong on Bioenergy, Conservation

Switchgrass can yield almost twice as much ethanol as corn, estimates geneticist Ken Vogel. (Photo by Brett Hampton courtesy USDA)

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2007 (ENS) – The U.S. Senate Friday approved a $286 billion farm bill shepherded through by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Agriculture Committee. The measure improves farm income protection and makes investments for the future in energy, conservation, nutrition and rural development initiatives.

Harkin hailed passage of the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007, saying it received more votes than any other farm bill since 1973. The final vote count in the Senate was 79-14.

Differences between this bill and the version of the farm bill passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year will now be worked out in conference between the two chambers.

Harkin, a Democrat, says it has not been easy to craft the bill under the threat of a veto by President George W. Bush. The 79 votes in favor would be more than enough to overcome a presidential veto.

Still, the Bush administration maintains its opposition to the bill. Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner said Friday, “Farmers and ranchers face enormous uncertainties and deserve a safety net, and I am a firm believer in federal support of agriculture. Yet, the farm bill just passed by the Senate fails to strengthen the safety net and increases taxes to generate $15 billion in revenue used to grow the size and scope of government.”

Conner said the Bush administration opposes income support for wealthy farmers contained in the bill. “The bill further increases price supports and continues to send farm subsidies to people who are among the wealthiest two percent of Americans,” Conner said. “The Senate-passed farm bill does not represent fiscal stewardship and lacks farm program reform.”

“This legislation is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “Unless the House and Senate can come together and craft a measure that contains real reform, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today’s passage.”

“This is a strong, bipartisan bill – evident by the fact that it passed Committee after only one day of deliberation with no negative votes voiced against it and passed the Senate today by an overwhelming majority,” Harkin said.

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Ranking Republican Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who coauthored the measure, called passage of the bill “a real victory for American agriculture.”

“The legislation will strengthen the nation’s food security, protect the livelihood of our farmers and ranchers, preserve our efforts to remain good stewards of the environment, and enhance our nation’s energy security efforts,” said Chambliss. “I consider a safe, affordable and abundant food supply a critical national security interest and this bill takes us in the right direction to ensure those priorities.”

The nutrition title received the largest funding increase, totaling over $5 billion. Chambliss says the increase was “no small accomplishment” and additional resources were made available by reductions in the commodity and crop insurance programs.

“After months of negotiations, we were able to work within a very strict budget allocation to complete our work and pass a farm bill that is good for agriculture, good for rural areas and good for the health of Americans,” said Harkin.

“The nutrition title strengthens our commitment to fighting hunger and promoting sound health and nutrition,” he said. “It updates archaic nutrition program rules, increases Food Stamp benefit levels, and stops the erosion of benefits that has gone unchecked since 1996.”

The bill expands the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to reach nearly 4.5 million children in elementary schools nationwide.

The energy title provides investments in farm-based energy by creating initiatives with financial incentives to help farmers transition into biomass crops, and supports the construction of biorefineries for cellulose ethanol with a loan guarantee program that will provide up to 80 percent of total project cost with a loan cap of $250 million.

The bill expands markets for biobased products, and invests in farm-based energy R&D, and in helping farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses move to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The National Farmers Union, NFU, which represents 250,000 farm and ranch families, says the Senate bill includes many of its top farm bill priorities such as creation of a standing disaster assistance program to aid producers affected by devastating weather conditions.

“Farmers and ranchers across the country, unfortunately, are going to be affected by natural disasters. A permanent disaster program will provide the certainty they need when a disaster strikes,” said NFU President Tom Buis.

“The Senate farm bill includes record investments in nutrition, conservation, renewable energy and specialty crop programs while maintaining a strong safety net for producers when prices fall,” Buis said.

“A strong safety net is vital to a successful farm bill,” he said. “Past experience has taught us that any farm bill will work during good price years but is really needed during times of low prices. The Senate farm bill will see farmers through the good and the bad.”

A field of organically grown corn (Photo by Bob Nichols courtesy USDA)

The National Corn Growers Association applauded passage of the bill. “Corn growers nationwide are pleased by the Senate’s support for advancing an optional revenue-based safety net for farmers,” said Ron Litterer, president of the association.

“This is a forward-looking farm bill with greatly strengthened initiatives to support renewable energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and to promote better diets and health for all Americans,” Harkin said. “It maintains a strong safety net for farm producers, and strengthens programs that will help agricultural producers of all kinds across our nation.”

The bill includes a newly named Producer Income Protection title of that continues basic features of the 2002 bill, which have worked well, and it gives producers a new option, beginning with the 2010 crop year, to choose to participate in a state-level revenue protection system.

“The Average Crop Revenue program offers producers better options for managing risk on their farms in today’s uncertain, rapidly changing farm environment,” Harkin said.

Yet Acting Agriculture Secretary Conner says farmers themselves oppose income protection provisions of the bill. “We have heard from farmers all across America in over 50 Farm Bill Forums since 2005, and most have made it clear that there must be an end to income subsidy payments for the richest people in the country.”

“Farmers understand that a program that takes tax dollars from middle income America and transfers those dollars to the nation’s wealthiest few is bad policy, and damages the credibility and the purpose of farm programs,” Conner said Friday.

The conservation title extends key conservation programs and increases critical funding. This will allow CSP – now renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program – to grow vigorously at a pace of more than 13 million acres a year, which with the 15 million acres already enrolled, will equal 80 million acres in 5 years.

This funding will also continue to allow increased enrollment in the Wetland Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Grassland Reserve Program.

The bill’s livestock title will promote market opportunities for producers; it will protect animal health; and it will strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. This title strengthens the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, with minor changes.

The rural development title provides $400 million in budget authority for a variety of initiatives that will promote economic growth and create jobs in rural communities. This title will help agriculture producers and small businesses to create and capitalize on new opportunities. It will bring quality, affordable day care as well as improved access to broadband to rural America. It will provide loans to rural hospitals so that they can acquire the best equipment possible.

The bill increases assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops and contains a full reauthorization of the Commodity Exchange Act until 2013.

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