When it returns in September from the August recess, the Senate is scheduled to take up the fiscal year 2004 agricultural appropriations bill. The House passed an ag appropriations bill that includes drastic cuts in conservation before departing for the recess.

“Once the Senate takes up the agriculture spending bill, NCGA expects a series of amendments that may alter some key provisions in the 2002 farm bill,” said NCGA Director of Public Policy Sam Willett.

“NCGA leadership continues to voice its concerns that reopening the farm bill risks unraveling a policy that carefully balances resources for the agriculture safety net, conservation, nutrition and renewable energy programs.”

Willett said senators have been quoted as saying they may offer more stringent restrictions on farm payments that adversely affect the level of benefits for several programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), marketing loan gains, loan deficiency payments (LDPs), as well as payments tied to the direct and counter-cyclical payment program.

“One recent proposal for the EQIP cost share program would reduce the annual payment limit from $450,000 to $300,000, creating a financial obstacle for producers hoping to adopt better land management and conservation practices,” he said.

With this year's federal budget deficit estimated to be in excess of $450 billion, Congress is expected to reduce total discretionary funding for farm programs by almost $900 million, according to NCGA officials.

Two key differences between the House and Senate bills involve spending for value-added grants in the Rural Development title and the new Conservation Security Program. In each case, the Senate provides significantly higher levels of funding.

According to Willett, NCGA leadership is optimistic negotiations between the House and Senate conferees will reach an agreement to adequately support both programs.

“The reformed farm safety net and other mandatory funded agriculture programs are also being scrutinized due to the budget resolution's requirement that the House and Senate agriculture committees find cost savings to the tune of 1 percent of mandatory agriculture and nutrition program spending by further reducing waste, fraud and abuse,” he noted.

“Although the pressure on Congress will continue to build to hold the line on spending, NCGA and other major farm groups have countered that the new farm bill's counter-cyclical payment program ensures a more fiscally disciplined approach to protecting farm income.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com