(May 22, 2007)

House lacks money for farmers to take care of land

By Charles Abbott
From Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of a House Agriculture subcommittee were thwarted by a lack of money on Tuesday from expanding "green payments" to farmers and from creating a $305 million program to combat asthma-causing dust.

Lawmakers put the ideas on the table during the first bill-drafting session for the farm law being written this year. But they withdrew them without a vote in hopes that money will become available this summer to pay for the programs.

Without more money for land stewardship, the Agriculture Committee may face a revolt when it brings its bill to the House floor, warned Scott Faber of Environmental Defense.

"The leadership has to provide more funds for conservation ... Today is a good day for those who want to write the farm bill on the floor," said Faber, who is part of a coalition of environmentalists, small-farm activists, fiscal hawks and international development groups who say the U.S. farm program should spend more on stewardship and less on crop subsidies.

Land stewardship programs will get roughly $5 billion a year under congressional formulas for agricultural programs. Crop supports will get $8 billion.

California Democrat Dennis Cardoza said stewardship programs must be expanded so that fruit, vegetable, nut and nursery crop growers can meet a mounting regulatory burden and so that specialty crop growers get a more equitable share of supports.

He proposed a $305 million air quality program to combat dust and ozone but withdrew it because there was no money.

"This is one of the most important issues we have," said Cardoza, who said 300 congressional districts violate federal standards for clean air. "Air quality problems are going to be putting farmers out of business in my state."

Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, proposed full funding of the Conservation Security Program, which would cost billions of dollars, but withdrew her amendment because there was no way to pay for it at the moment. Created in 2002, CSP is the first green payment program for land stewardship. Under current plans, it would be mothballed until 2012.

Under the outline drawn by Agriculture Committee leaders, funding will double, to $2 billion a year for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which shares the cost of controlling farm and feedlot runoff. Funding would climb for the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, which buys easements to prevent urban sprawl.

But enrollment in wetland and grassland programs would stall. The land-idling Conservation Reserve would retain its cap of 39.2 million acres.

Although a $20 billion reserve may be created for agriculture, there is no assurance lawmakers can meet the rules for using it. It is fairly certain that renewable energy programs will get $4 billion to $5 billion from the reserve.

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