Farm Belt Senator Offers Conservation Based Bill

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 2, 2001 (ENS) - The chair of the Senate Agriculture committee has introduced a new farm bill that would offer new environmental and conservation programs to farmers while retaining most current agricultural subsidies. The bill is being hailed as an effective compromise by environmental groups, and could win the type of consensus support sought by the Bush administration.

Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Tom Harkin outlined his comprehensive farm bill proposal on Thursday, saying the legislation would promote conservation, expand production of farm based renewable energy, protect farm income and create new economic opportunities for rural communities.

"This proposal makes good on my commitment to make our national farm policy work for farmers, our environment and rural communities," said Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. "I believe that my four pronged approach - to promote conservation, protect and boost income, expand jobs and economic opportunity in rural communities and increase renewable energy production - provides the solid foundation we need to help ensure our farm families and rural areas prosper well into the 21st century."

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman did not endorse the bill, but said the Department of Agriculture would look at the legislation while continuing to work on a "future farm policy that best helps a broad range of American farmers and ranchers in addressing the critical issues facing our industry."

Earlier this year, Veneman unveiled the Bush administration's long range farm policy, placing new emphasis on conservation and reduced reliance on federal subsidies to growers of basic commodities such as wheat and cotton. The Harkin bill would retain many of those subsidies.

turbines

Wind turbines and agriculture are a good mix at this Buffalo Ridge wind farm in southwest Minnesota (Photo by Warren Gretz, courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
However, while a farm bill passed by the House of Representatives would devote millions of dollars to industrial scale livestock operations, the Harkin bill would shift those funds to smaller farmers, subsidizing improvements to their manure management systems. Manure runoff from fields and leaky storage pits is a major source of water pollution.

As the cornerstone of his proposal, Harkin would create the Conservation Security Act, providing flexible incentives for farmers to employ new conservation practices, and rewarding farmers who already employ them.

The Sierra Club called the Harkin proposal a major improvement over the farm bill approved by the House of Representatives, and over current law.

"The House turned its back on family farms and clean water but we are grateful that Senator Harkin is working to protect them," said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program.

wetlands

The Wetlands Reserve Program aids farmers who protect and preserve agricultural wetlands (Photo by Ron Nichols, courtesy USDA)
Harkin's bill would increase wetlands protected by the Wetlands Reserve Program to 250,000 acres per year, 100,000 acres per year more than the House passed bill.

The legislation would increase funding to the Agricultural Land Protection Program, which protects farmland from suburban sprawl, boosting it to $250 million a year by the end of the five year period covered by the bill. The House bill authorizes just $50 million per year for this program.

Harkin's conservation initiatives would increase the acreage eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program to 40 million acres, and increase funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program up to $950 million a year.

The bill would boost funding for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program to $100 million a year, create a new grassland reserve program and permanently authorize the Resource Conservation and Development program.

Harkin's legislation would encourage farmers and ranchers to develop renewable energy projects drawing on wind, solar, biomass and geothermal sources. The projects could help boost farm and rural incomes, while improving air quality and promoting the nation's energy security, Harkin said.

McNeil

The McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vermont turns wood waste into power. Agricultural wastes like corn cobs could also be used as commercial fuels (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
The bill's energy initiatives include a new renewable energy development grant program, and grants to farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) said the renewable energy and efficiency provisions in the Harkin bill would help diversify farm income by providing new energy cash crops to supplement traditional crops. The Harkin legislation would offer financial and technical assistance for renewable energy systems and establish a competitive grant program to support commercialization of new technologies that can convert farm wastes into petroleum substitutes.

Harkin's bill would also require federal agencies to increase their purchases of products made from these substitutes and other biobiased technologies.

"The renewable energy potential of our nation's heartland is enormous," said AWEA executive director Randall Swisher. "We believe that wind energy alone can provide six percent of U.S. electricity by the year 2020, or about three-quarters of what hydropower supplies today."

"Wind energy has been the world's fastest growing energy source on a percentage basis over the past decade, and Senator Harkin's legislation will start to bring its potential benefits home to American farmers," added Swisher.

AWEA also praised a provision that would make funds available to farmers and ranchers for energy audits to identify energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements that can be made in daily operations, as well as funds to put the changes in place.

harvest

The wind blowing corn dust at harvest time might turn a wind turbine to generate electricity
"Together, renewable energy and energy efficiency can really go a long way toward solving our energy problems and making farmers less vulnerable to volatility in energy prices," Swisher said. "Wind energy is a clean, abundant, domestic energy source, and its potential for economic development in the rural U.S. is huge."

Farm groups appear to support the Harkin bill as well. Lee Klein, chair of the National Corn Growers Association, said the legislation "moves toward restoring equity in farm policy."

The Iowa Soybean Association said the bill "offers a fair and balanced approach to providing needed income support."

A summary of the Harkin Farm Bill is available at: http://harkin.senate.gov/agriculture/farm-bill-summary.cfm