State Journal-Register

Sep 20, 2001

Emphasis on farm aid shifts to conservation
   Bush bill shies from subsidies

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration on Wednesday laid out a framework for a new farm bill that would shift emphasis toward
conservation programs and away from current subsidy programs that send most funds to a few large operators who grow specific crops.

The current farm subsidy system has created "unintended consequences" by encouraging overproduction and driving up land prices and rents, concluded a 120-page report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Highly efficient commercial farms benefit enormously from price supports, enabling them to expand their operations and lower costs even more," the report said. "Other farms have not received enough benefits to remain viable and have been absorbed along the way."

However, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the report is not meant to be critical of farm subsidies, but to provide a "realistic assessment" of the existing situation so that lawmakers can make more informed decisions.

While Veneman refused to take a position on several bills pending in Congress, the USDA's report appears to lean toward the conservation-oriented approach favored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

"We can and should do a better job of ensuring that this farm bill is fair and does not focus so heavily on large cash payments to the biggest operations," said Harkin, adding that the report leaves much to be decided.

Expanding conservation programs can help farmers who have not in the past benefited from the subsidy payments that are limited only to those who grow certain crops such as corn, wheat and cotton, he said.

Illinois, a major corn-producing state, receives the third-largest amount of farm funding under the current system, behind Iowa and Texas. However, states such as California and Florida, where farmers produce more fruit and vegetables, have benefited little.

In Illinois, almost 60 percent of the federal farm subsidies go to just 10 percent of the recipients, according to a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

Iowa, Texas and Illinois are the top three recipients of federal farm aid over the past five years. Ohio ranks 13th. However, states such as California and Florida that produce more fruit and vegetables have benefited little.

In July, the House Agriculture Committee approved a 10-year, $171 billion bill that would expand subsidies to producers of the traditional crops. The bill was scheduled to come up on the House floor last week, but was postponed indefinitely due to the terrorist attacks.

Perhaps the clearest signal that Veneman sent to the Republican-controlled House is that the Bush administration sees no reason to hurry.

"We're still a long way from developing an ultimate farm bill," said Veneman.

The current farm bill does not expire until next year. With Congress diverting vast sums to thwart terrorists, it is not clear how much money will be available for farm programs.

Environmentalists had mixed views of the report and Veneman's comments. Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said he found it "incredibly odd" that the Bush administration has not yet taken a firm position on what a new farm bill should look like.

But Tim Searchinger, an attorney with Environmental Defense, saw the report as an endorsement of conservation measures that his group and others support. For political reasons, the Bush administration may not want to publicly fight the bill produced by fellow Texans leading the House committee, he said.

Yet House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, insisted that the principles outlined by the Bush administration were
"fully consistent" with the goals of his committee's bill.

The Illinois Farm Bureau would oppose any shift in funding from the subsidy programs to conservation, said Chuck Spencer, the group's national legislative director.

The USDA report recommends expanding conservation programs to include preservation activities on working farms. Most of today's conservation funding goes to farmers who are paid to idle their land. Two-thirds of the nation's farmland is controlled by small and medium-sized farms that often do not benefit from current subsidies, the report noted.

The report also advocates continuing a safety net to protect farmers from events that are out of their control, without encouraging long-term
dependence of government support.