The conservation bill Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced along with Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., last month is starting to get a lot more attention than when it was first submitted.

When the Conservation Security Act of 2001 was introduced in mid-May, Washington observers thought Harkin and Smith would be hard-pressed to drum up much support for the bill. But, that outlook changed when control of the Senate shifted to Democrats.

The change in parties from Republican to independent by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords gave Democrats a one-vote majority (50 votes to 49) in the upper chamber. It also moved Harkin, a 16-year veteran of the Senate, from ranking minority member to chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“The Conservation Security Act adds a major new element to farm policy that combines support for conservation and improved income on America's farms and ranches,” Harkin said at a press conference announcing the bill.

“On-farm conservation has a real and positive impact on the quality of natural resources, wildlife habitat and life in rural communities. The Conservation Security Act would reward farmers for these practices, as well as encourage them to increase their conservation efforts.”

Harkin first introduced the legislation in July 1999, but it made little headway in the Republican-controlled Senate. Some observers believe the new legislation could become one of the cornerstones of the 2002 farm bill now that Harkin can set the agenda for farm legislation in that body.

While the summary of the bill does not mention no-till specifically, most observers believe the concept would be included in the list of conservation practices that would qualify producers for payments under the legislation.

Harkin's plan would utilize the Conservation Security Program, to allow farmers and ranchers to enter into five to 10 year contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and choose from one of three tiers of conservation practices. USDA would make payments based on the number and type of practices and level of conservation on their land.

Under the Conservation Security Act, farmers would:

  • Receive an annual payment of up to $20,0000, with the ability to access a one-time advance payment of the greater of $1,000 or 20 percent of the annual payment for implementing a basic set of practices. This basic category, Tier I, would include such practices as nutrient management, soil conservation and wildlife habitat management.
  • Receive up to $35,000 and access to a one-time advance payment of the greater of $2,000 or 20 percent of the annual payments. Farmers would add to their Tier I practices by choosing a minimum number of Tier II practices — including such applications as controlled, rotational grazing, partial field practices like buffer strips and windbreaks, wetland restoration and wildlife habitat enhancement.
  • Adopt comprehensive Tier III conservation practices on their whole farm ó under a plan that addresses all aspects of air, land, water and wildlife. Participating farmers would receive up to $50,000 and have access to a one-time advance payment of the greater of $3,000 or 20 percent of the annual payment.

“We've got to do our part to provide real financial incentives for conservation on private lands — especially land currently in agricultural production,” Harkin said. “We simply must make conservation a priority and devote the necessary resources to strengthen existing conservation programs and establish new ones.

“The Conservation Security Act together with the upcoming farm bill both provide a tremendous opportunity to solve this problem.”

Oregon's Sen. Smith said the bill represents a “new environmental ethic.” He also noted that the bill “doesn't leave out my farmers,” implying that previous farm programs have.

“Current emergency farm payments add up to about $4 billion per year,” said Smith, “and this bill would help farmers through the front door, not the back door. Taxpayers would also receive environmental benefits through the legislation.”

Cosponsors of the bill include Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Mark Dayton, D-Minn.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Herb Kohl, D-Wis.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.; and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.


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