Farm groups are heralding the Oct. 4 defeat of an amendment to the House farm bill that would have shifted $19 billion from farm income support to conservation programs. However, some wildlife and environmental organizations aren't yet ready to surrender the battle for program funds.
“We're grateful to the Mississippi congressional delegation for holding together and voting against the Kind amendment,” says Chip Morgan, executive director of Delta Council in Stoneville, Miss.
However, he says, “It troubles us that there was a less than 30-vote difference in the voting. It also troubles us that some of the organizations that classify themselves as conservation organizations would fight against farmers and farm income.”
David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, says the group is “enthused” that the amendment was defeated in the House.
“We think that the commodity titles are where the farm bill emphasis needs to be,” he says. “We do not have any opposition at all to conservation measures being included in the farm bill. However, we do not want them to reduce the level of support farmers receive, and we do not want them used as a carrot to coerce farmers into decreasing production levels.”
“The removal of commodity production in a community has too much adverse impact on a community,” Waide says. “It takes away the infrastructure and supply sales to the community, and the jobs that the production, processing and distribution of agricultural commodities creates.”
The amendment, written by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., would have paid farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land and would have expanded the land eligible for the program from 34 million acres to 45 million acres. It would have also provided as much as $500 million annually to farmers near urban areas who pledge not to sell land to developers.
All total, the Kind amendment's “working land stewardship” plan would spend a total of $3 billion a year — $30 billion over the life of the 10-year farm bill — on land, water and wildlife conservation.
The effort to reduce the level of farm support in the House Agriculture Committee's proposed farm bill in favor of spending for conservation programs was rejected by a 226-to-200 vote in the House of Representatives.
Morgan says the close vote concerns Delta Council in light of the fact that Congress will likely still be debating a farm bill in 2002. There is also the likelihood that the Kind amendment, or a similar amendment, may later find its way back into the farm bill debate.
“It concerns us that vote against the Kind amendment was far too close to have the importance it does to a segment of the economy that is on its knees financially,” he says. “A developed and profitable agriculture is the best conservation program possible. If you look at the underdeveloped nations with their underdeveloped agricultural industries, what you will almost exclusively find is that conservation is a non-entity.”
Morgan adds, “If we debate a farm bill in the Senate this year, we've clearly got our work cut out for us. These groups that have been characterized as conservation organizations will certainly be coming to the Senate to fight for the very same things they supported in the Kind amendment brought before the House.”
Although grassroots organizations like Delta Council and the Farm Bureau Federation are in favor of increasing funding for some conservation programs, they urged their membership to voice their objections to the Kind amendment.
In fact, both groups have gone on the record supporting the farm bill proposal that recently received a stamp of approval from the House of Representatives. The House bill, which was approved by a 291-to-120 vote Oct. 5, includes substantial increases in conservation spending.
For example, the House's farm bill increases the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) by 800 percent and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by 15 percent. Overall, the conservation title of the bill increases conservation spending by 80 percent.
Several groups that also boast large farm memberships, including Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation, disagree, believing that those increases are not enough.
“It is unfortunate that this debate has become devisive. That is not our intent,” says Ken Babcock with Ducks Unlimited in Jackson, Miss.
Babcock, who serves as director of operations for the group's 15-state Southern region, says Ducks Unlimited supported the Kind amendment for several very specific reasons.
The Kind amendment, he says, would have made 250,000 acres eligible each year for the Wetlands Reserve Program, instead of the current 150,000 acres. In addition, the amendment would have increased the acreage eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program, established a new grasslands reserve program that allowed for long-term protection of existing grasslands, and provided additional money for the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.
“There have been comments made that lands retired through conservation programs are no longer working lands. But lands like those enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program can produce wood fiber and can eventually be harvested for trees,” Babcock says. “Our support for that amendment was based on the fact that these four program areas were adequately addressed by that amendment.”
Another often overlooked aspect of drastically increasing conservation program funds, he says, are both the short-term and long-term economic returns landowners enrolled in conservation programs can realize. “There is a great demand out there for the recreational use of privately owned lands, and many people are willing to pay premiums in order to secure land for hunting and other types of recreation.”
James Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi in Stoneville, Miss., says that he, too, liked the conservation provisions included in the amendment. “We thought the Kind amendment was great for conservation, and although we didn't come out for or against it, we wanted to see some of those provisions included in the House bill.”
In an e-mailed memo to its membership, Ducks Unlimited calls the current situation a “wildlife crisis,” and says, the House version of the farm bill falls short of the group's goals for the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program in terms of both acreage and funding.”
“Farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are being turned away from conservation programs because of a lack of funding and acreage,” Ducks Unlimited says. “Landowners want to be good stewards of their lands but their needs are unmet because of overwhelming demand. The necessary programs in the Kind amendment benefit urban and rural communities by providing improved water quality, flood control and wildlife habitat.”
One wildlife organization that did not support the Kind amendment was Delta Wildlife. Based in Stoneville, Miss., and housed in the same building as Delta Council, Delta Wildlife, which is made up predominately of farmers and landowners, is not in favor of shifting government funding from commodity programs to conservation programs.
“Delta Wildlife does not get involved in public policy. However, if you reduce farm income as the Kind amendment proposes, you are in fact reducing conservation,” says Trey Cooke, director. “Perfect examples include third world countries that implement absolutely no conservation measures, simply because they cannot afford them. In order for good sound conservation practices to be implemented, farming must be profitable,” he says.
Ducks Unlimited, according to Babcock, will continue to maintain an open door policy regarding discussions of conservation funding with all stakeholders, including agriculture.
“Our priorities haven't changed since this all began a year ago. We are disappointed that we haven't yet been able to find the middle ground on this, but we hope the opportunity will present itself before the 2002 farm bill is enacted,” he says. “Another thing that hasn't changed is the fact that there are no Ducks Unlimited partners more valued to us than farmers, ranchers, and private landowners.”