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. (For more, see http://deltafarmpress.com/farmbill/070201-johanns-payments/)
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.