Farm aid bill clears Senate

Final approval given to expanded subsidies, money for conservation

Critics see little help for families

May 09, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Driven by election-year fervor, the Senate gave final approval yesterday to an agriculture bill that guarantees farmers a predictable flow of taxpayer-subsidized income for the next six years.

The bill marks a reversal from the current U.S. farm law, enacted in 1996, which was intended to wean farmers from dependence on federal crop subsidies. But the measure's political appeal was potent in a year when several of its chief advocates, who represent farm states, face tough re-election races.

Approved 64-35, the bill also boosts money for conservation - and allows for a development-free zone in the three-state Delmarva Peninsula - though at a fraction of the cost of the crop subsidies. The measure, which has passed the House, will now go to President Bush, who has promised to sign it into law.

Senate Democratic leaders who crafted the bill argued that it would stem the loss of family-owned farms, which they say are being driven into bankruptcy by the government's current policy of trying to move farmers into a free-market system.

"This is a great day for those who look to us for some expectation that they can survive and achieve great things after having chosen this wonderful profession," said Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, one of the states that stand to benefit from the measure.

Daschle was a key architect of the bill who can now count it among the top achievements of the Senate under his control.

But Republicans complained that most of the money would go to large agribusiness conglomerates, not to family farms, and would lead to overproduction and lower crop prices while driving up the price of land. In addition, they said, Congress is borrowing from the Social Security surplus to finance the measure, which would cost $183 billion over 10 years.

"I cannot support this frenzy of overspending that is both too expensive and unbalanced," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican. "There's too much for agribusiness and not enough for small family farms in my state and across the nation."

Neither such complaints nor those of environmentalists - who argued that only 10 percent of the new money would go toward conservation - could brake the momentum of a measure that farm-state lawmakers hoped would boost their political prospects in November.

Among the leading Senate supporters who expect stiff re-election challenges are four Democrats from agriculture states: Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, voted for the legislation, which was welcomed in Maryland by farmers and conservationists.

"We like it," said Valerie Connelly, a lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau. She noted that the measure expands the categories of crops eligible for subsidies beyond traditional grains to include specialty crops popular in Maryland, such as spring vegetables.

Maryland farmers will receive $55 million more in crop subsidies over the next six years than they would have if the current law had remained in effect, the bill's sponsors said.

The measure also provides help for Maryland's dairy farmers, who have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get into the Northeast Dairy Compact, which has guaranteed a minimum price for dairy products.

The legislation eliminates the compact but creates a nationwide program of minimum dairy price supports. Only operations with herds of no more than about 150 cows would qualify, however.

Maryland farmers are also well-positioned to capitalize on new conservation money in the bill, which rewards them for using environmentally sensitive practices, such as no-till farming, buffer strips and grass lanes for water. About 70 percent of Maryland farmers now use such practices, Connelly said.

The enactment of the farm bill also represents a major personal victory for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who won a provision that will allow for the creation of a conservation corridor on the Delmarva Peninsula.

The goal is to take advantage of existing federal, state, county and private programs to maintain farm communities in large rural tracts - both for the economic benefit of farmers and to preserve wildlife habitat.

Patrick McMillan, of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, also observed that new farmland protection money should help the state buy development rights from the backlog of farmers offering to sell them.

Sen. George F. Allen, a Virginia Republican, complained that the final version of the bill dropped a $70 million nitrogen-reduction plan for the Chesapeake Bay, a plan that had also been championed by Sarbanes and was approved earlier by the Senate.

Harkin apologized for failing to persuade House negotiators to accept the bay program. But the Iowa Democrat said the bill includes at least three competitive grant programs that would help curb soil runoff into the bay.

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