State Journal-Register
 
Oct 03, 2001
 
Conservation funding meets opposition
   Many farm groups against changing subsidy system

DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Despite criticism that farm subsidies support a vicious cycle of overproduction and low crop prices, the House will begin debate today on a $170 billion, 10-year farm bill that would expand the subsidy system that historically has favored Illinois.

A key test will come when some lawmakers try to steer some of that funding from crops to conservation programs, hoping to give more farmers in more states access to federal assistance.

That challenge to the status quo is being vigorously opposed by national and Illinois farm groups.

"They're intending to rip money away from the heartland and give it to either one of the coasts," said Bruce Knight of the National Corn Growers Association. "Clearly, Illinois farmers are losing out with this proposal."

The current system favors farmers in the Midwest and South who produce crops such as corn, wheat, rice and cotton. But farmers who grow fruits and vegetables or run dairy farms are left out.

Illinois farmers have received $5.6 billion in farm subsidies over the past five years - more than any other state except Iowa and Texas.

The bill, approved by the House Agriculture Committee in July, would increase total farm-related spending by $74 billion over 10 years. Included in that amount is an increase in conservation spending from $2 billion a year to $3.7 billion a year.

However, an amendment to be offered by Reps. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., would boost that amount to $4.6 billion a year, including aid for environmentally friendly activities on working farms. Most conservation funding today is paid to farmers to idle their
land. The lawmakers are supported by a coalition of urban and suburban House members and others whose constituents don't benefit from current farm subsidies.

Only a handful of Illinois House members are expected to join their effort. Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, whose western Illinois district collects more farm subsidies than all but one other congressional district in the state, said he believes a boost in conservation spending would
help more Illinois farmers in the long run.

"I can't see how it would hurt small family farmers to have federal subsidies of farming practices that help prevent soil runoff and erosion," Evans said.

However, Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Joe Hampton said any funds diverted from commodity programs to conservation would be detrimental to Illinois corn and soybean farmers.

"Farmers have to be in business in order to participate in conservation programs. The conservation programs themselves aren't going to provide a livelihood," Hampton said.

If the committee-approved bill were in effect this year, it would increase Illinois farmers' projected annual income by $16,000, according to an analysis by University of Illinois agriculture professor Gary Schnitkey. No studies have been made of the conservation proposal.

American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman Tuesday attributed the surprisingly strong opposition mounted against the committee bill to the "warm and fuzzy" image of environmental programs and changing demographics in Congress.

Even if farm-state lawmakers are able to defeat the amendment this week, it isn't clear whether the House action will have long-range impact on future farm policy.

So far, the Bush administration hasn't weighed in on any specific legislative proposals. However, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said last week that federal farm funding is uncertain in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

In addition, a U.S. Agriculture Department report recently called for greater emphasis on conservation programs and international trade, criticizing crop subsidies for encouraging overproduction and driving up land prices.

Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, the committee's senior Republican, are drafting a bill that would increase spending on conservation programs. Both have criticized the current system for benefiting large operators who grow specific crops.