Shifting focus of the US farm bill

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(Host) As Congress debates a massive farm bill, lawmakers are under pressure to cut subsidy payments, and fund conservation programs instead.

For Vermont farmers, that could mean more federal money to install new environmental controls.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) An assistant to Senator Patrick Leahy was at the Statehouse recently trying to explain some of the political dynamics at work in the farm bill.

Aide Bob Paquin told several lawmakers that the five year farm legislation often involves a political tug of war between regional agriculture interests.

(Paquin) "So for example, Chairman Harkin wants to increase the conservation programs, which we generally support, obviously. But he is trying to find the savings in the commodity support programs, corn, soybeans, rice, cotton. The senators that represent those states are obviously going to oppose that."

(Dillon) The chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, has proposed a major re-alignment of government farm spending.

He wants to re-direct billions of dollars away from direct subsidy payments and use some of the money instead to fund conservation programs aimed at protecting land and the environment.

The subsidy program that Vermont dairy farmers rely on is apparently safe for now. The program is called MILC, or Milk Income Loss Contract. It pays dairy producers if prices drop below specified levels.

Leahy, who is a member of the Agriculture Committee, says the MILC program should be continued in the next farm bill.

(Leahy) "Right now, I have the votes to reauthorize it".

(Dillon) Leahy also supports Harkin’s effort to re-direct some of the subsidy money.

(Leahy) "It’s not either or. We have conservation programs. And we can have commodity programs. It’s just that one cannot wipe out the other".

(Dillon) A recent study by the non-profit group Environmental Defense says Vermont farmers would get about $8 million more in federal support if the funds were shifted from direct subsidies to conservation spending.

Sara Hopper is a lawyer in Washington with Environmental Defense. She says one program that’s often used in Vermont funds improvements to keep farm waste out of rivers and lakes.

(Hopper) "It helps them address some of the issues associated with manure management and helps them improve water quality and reduce the water quality impacts of their operations".

(Dillon) Environmental Defense has hired Louise Calderwood, a former Vermont deputy agriculture secretary, to lobby for the money. Calderwood was working in Washington this week. She says funds for the conservation programs are tight, so it’s import to re-direct the federal money.

(Calderwood) "The conservation funding allows Vermonters to voluntarily achieve their conservation goals. And currently we only have about 30 percent of the requests from Vermont farmers that can be fulfilled under current funding levels".

(Dillon) The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to debate the farm bill later this month.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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