Congress has moved a step closer to passing the 2001 Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations Act.

A conference committee agreed on legislation that will provide $75.9 billion for commodity programs and other programs of USDA for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Most expect the House and Senate to approve the committee report.

As the conference committee completed its action, the Senate Agriculture Committee continued its work on a farm bill to replace the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act or Freedom to Farm, possibly in 2001.

But some senators were complaining about the pace and the direction of the farm bill titles being approved by the committee under the leadership of its chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. The House approved a new farm bill in early October.

Most importantly for catfish producers, the appropriations bill contains language that states that only catfish produced in North America can be labeled as catfish.

Ben Lamensdorf, president of the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council, praised the efforts of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in securing the language in the conference report. It is expected to help reduce imports of Vietnamese basa fish that are now being marketed as catfish in the United States.

The conference committee report also included a much-needed $79 million for boll weevil eradication for the second year. The funding, which was inserted in last year's appropriations bill by Sen. Cochran, will provide funding for eradication programs to pay down debts and increase government cost-shares.

Sen. Cochran, a member of the conference committee, issued a press release outlining the highlights of the bill.

He noted the legislation provides a $173 million increase in funding for agricultural research and Extension work. Under the bill, USDA's Agricultural Research Service will receive $1.1 billion and its Cooperative States Extension Service $1 billion.

It includes $3.9 billion in authorized loan levels for agricultural credit programs and $967 million for conservation programs.

Lamensdorf, a farmer who also serves as a bank chairman, said the catfish industry has been reeling due to the imports of the Vietnamese fish and that the economic balance sheet for catfish farmers and other businesses in the industry was precarious.

“Everyone in Washington keeps talking about an economic stimulus package - well, Thad Cochran just sent the first phase of an economic stimulus package to the Delta with the passage of this bill,” said Lamensdorf.

On the farm bill front, a group of southern senators introduced legislation that closely mirrors the House farm bill. The principal authors included Senators Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.; Zell Miller, D-Ga.; Jesse Helms, R-N.C.; John Breaux, D-La.; and Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Sen. Lincoln, who with Sen. Hutchinson, had criticized the Senate Agriculture Committee's lack of farm bill progress, said the proposal could be offered as an amendment in the Agriculture Committee if Chairman Harkin continues his efforts to move funding from commodity to conservation programs.