The cheerleading may not have been on a Super Bowl scale, but following the release of USDA Secretary Mike Johanns’ new farm bill proposal, environmental groups certainly started shaking the pompoms.
However, while the green lobby may be looking to give Johanns a celebratory Gatorade shower, the favored substances in the South are likely tar and feathers.
Among his desires, Johanns wants to end payments for producers with an adjusted gross income of more than $200,000 and eliminate the three-entity rule. He also wants to add money to conservation programs.
All of this met the approval of conservation groups during a joint press conference on Jan. 31.
“Johanns has made equity, transparency, predictability and compliance with our trade obligations the litmus tests for the next farm bill,” said Scott Faber, farm policy campaign director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
“His proposal goes a long way towards addressing many of those goals by increasing conservation spending which is available to all farmers regardless of where they live, how much they grow and what they grow.
“This proposal will help many more farmers in more parts of the country than simply extending the current farm bill. Congress should go much further and provide even more funding for voluntary USDA conservation programs. But the proposal is a large step in the right direction.”
Johanns’ proposal, said Ken Cook, was an indication that “this isn’t your grandfather’s farm bill. I know there are a lot of folks in the subsidy lobby who would’ve liked it to have been more of the same. But I think (Johanns) and the Bush administration have planted the flag of reform.”
Cook, director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), said for the first time in many farm bill cycles, “conservation and environmental groups aren’t just confining themselves to the conservation title for reform.”
The fact that Johanns started his farm bill briefing talking about payment limits “is very important. That signals Johanns and the Bush administration are taking a fresh look at what needs to be done to limit very large payments to the wealthiest beneficiaries of our farm programs. The important thing is this is a serious introduction of means testing into the farm bill for the first time in a long time.”
According to Cook, Johanns is proposing a "straightforward" $200,000 adjusted gross income limit "regardless of the source of the money. If you come home with more than $200,000 on the adjusted gross income line on your tax form, you’re out of the program.”
Even that, however, may not be enough for Cook. “I’m not sure that will eliminate enough of what’s needed to level the playing field. But it’s an important start.”
The proposed increase in spending on the conservation title also excited Brian Moore of the National Audubon Society. However, “a reality is that Congress will write the new farm bill. As Congress moves in writing legislation, we look forward to working with them.”
Moore pointed at two titles of great concern to the Audubon Society: conservation and energy.
“The conservation programs over the last 25 years have been important. They’ve provided for millions of acres of wildlife habitat, reduced soil erosion, and reduced harmful nutrients and pesticides in our waterways. They’ve had a direct effect on helping human health and also wildlife health throughout farm country.
“So we hope to craft an even more robust conservation title that uses taxpayer money more wisely to address the unmet public demand for conservation. Right now, many who apply for conservation programs are turned away due to lack of funding. We hope to improve that.”
The conservation fund increases didn’t surprise Cook.
“For some time, we’ve supposed the secretary would increase conservation spending. It could be even more money for conservation, but we’re grateful that, relative to the commodity program, conservation is coming ahead in his thinking.
“He’s shifting the debate in the direction of a whole new set of investments that’ll benefit many more farmers than can benefit from the four or five favorite crops.”
And Cook wants more.
“We think it’s time to start talking about adding even more of an obligation (to conservation). For example, if someone is getting a lot of money from the marketplace — like corn growers are receiving now — it’s fair to raise the question of why they should also get a substantial direct payment without some sort of additional obligation to conservation needs. We’re thinking particularly of water quality.”
As for Johanns’ proposals on energy, “we’re pleased (the secretary) has also called for increases in renewable energy spending,” said Faber. “And he’s proposed to link those increases to using crop wastes, wood wastes and alternative feed stocks to produce ethanol.
“Again, renewable energy investments on our farms and ranches and forestlands could significantly reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy and fossil fuels. If we make the right investments, increasing renewable energy developments on farms can also help us meet our biggest environmental challenges.”
The energy title has the potential to help Americans begin to “wean off” fossil fuels in favor of more renewable energy, said Moore.
“That would help us address the increasing problems associated with the global warming crisis. It’s important to make sure we move forward with existing technologies and also develop new technologies. But, at the same time, we must make sure we aren’t taking a step backwards by putting unnecessary stress on our land, water and wildlife.”
Cook said EWG has concerns about “making changes in the Conservation Reserve Program that would open it up to economic use. Long ago, I proposed looking at those options of better integrating the CRP into the local economy. I do worry that we may continue to pay fairly high CRP rates and still allow economic use for some ethanol crops.”
Faber noted “one sour note” regarding Johanns’ plan: allowing energy feed stocks to be grown on lands enrolled in the CRP.
The CRP is “the nation’s most successful conservation program. We think the refiners of these new fuels are in a better position to forward contract with the growers of feed stocks. We support (allowing) biofuel refiners to use federal grants and loan guarantees to contract with feedstock producers.
“Many of the lands enrolled in CRP that will soon become available because the CRP contracts expire are nowhere near where refineries are being built. Opening CRP to energy feed stocks could undermine many of the gains we’ve made in the last 20 years.”
Now that the Bush administration has taken the plunge into environmentally-friendly waters, Cook’s hope is it will stay put.
“They need to lend some political support to the direction of the reforms as this debate wears on in the months ahead.”