Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner says the Bush administration had a “close call” when it was deciding whether to recommend an adjusted gross income eligibility limit for conservation payments in the 2007, uh, 2008 farm bill.

Conner was explaining why the administration is seeking a $200,000 AGI limit for commodity title payments but none for conservation programs in the recommendations it made while Conner was deputy agriculture secretary.

“We thought if there’s great conservation benefits provided through these programs for the general public, and if we can secure those benefits from virtually any American, any size farmer, any person regardless of wealth, that’s probably good for the general public,” he said. “So we left that alone.”

Readers of this space know I don’t always see eye-to-eye with the agriculture secretary. In this case, I have to shake my head in wonder why Conner, half the U.S. Senate and most environmental groups can’t see you could use the same words to make the argument against stricter limits on commodity payments?

Do farmers not make a contribution to the public good when they produce corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat at the ridiculously low prices of recent years as when they perform conservation practices to protect their air, soil and water?

Example: In recent months, we’ve often heard how the demand for ethanol was driving up food costs, and the latter would move even higher when corn hit $5 or $6 per bushel. Instead, farmers shifted several million acres of soybeans and cotton into corn and prices never got much above $4.

Many of those cotton and soybean producers from the Southeast and non-traditional corn areas of the Midwest who helped fill the gap would have been out of business if proponents of stricter payment limits had had their way in the 2002 farm bill.

Conner did say the administration would be willing to work with House-Senate conferees when they reconcile the two bills to find an “appropriate limit” for adjusted gross income eligibility for conservation payments.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas tried to amend the Senate bill to include an adjusted gross income limit on conservation payments because of the disparity she and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss saw between restrictions on one program and none on the other. (Those million-dollar payments to San Francisco “arts patrons” cited by Sen. Byron Dorgan during the debate were conservation payments, Chambliss noted.)

Supporters of payment limit “reform” were showing little sign of giving up, meanwhile. In his weekly newspaper column, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley repeated his claims that 73 percent of farm payments are pocketed by 10 percent of the recipients, a “red herring” that several senators attempted to correct during the debate on the Dorgan-Grassley amendment.

That 10 percent, who also happen to produce 80 percent of the crops, will undoubtedly have to endure a few more months of such claims before they see a new farm bill.

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