We're Back!

After an extended blog holiday, we're back and ready to start back up.  Not coincidentally, the Farm Bill conference committee is about to get formally underway, and we, of course, have some feelings about that.

We're currently visiting California for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition meeting in Pacific Grove, California- where it is 50 degrees and sunny.  This is a far cry from the home office, where it is somewhere near 0, with at least ten inches of snow on the ground.  However, there is a lot of traffic here.  Much more than rural Nebraska.

We've been hammering away on those Senators who led the defeat of the Dorgan-Grassley payment limits amendment.  Below is an opinion piece that ran in the Grand Forks Herald (North Dakota).  This inspired an ongoing back and forth between the Center for Rural Affairs, Senator Kent Conrad, and various other North Dakotans.  We'll post more of this ongoing saga in the next couple days.

VIEWPOINT : Blame Conrad for defeat of farm-bill reform

By Dan Owens,
Published Friday, December 21, 2007

LYONS, Neb. - Last week, a handful of senators from the Midwest undermined the payment-limitations amendment co-authored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. Surprisingly, that handful of senators was led by Dorgan's fellow North Dakotan, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

The Senate passed its version of the 2007 farm bill one day after rejecting Dorgan's amendment. The amendment would have closed loopholes, placed a hard cap of $250,000 on payments and invested the savings in small business development, beginning farmers and other initiatives to create a future in rural America.

That would seem to be a common-sense measure; finally put a cap on payments to the small number of mega-farms and put the savings in programs that benefit all of rural America.

There are promising and worthy aspects of the farm bill passed by the Senate. But any farm bill that does not contain payment limits is fatally flawed, as it will continue the practice of using federal tax dollars to subsidize the destruction of family farming.

We can see the future of family farming and rural communities right now. It isn't hard. We only have to look around us at our rural areas. We can look at struggling small towns, empty Main Streets and fewer and fewer farms.

Are we satisfied with this? Is this inevitable? If we truly care about our rural communities, the answer to both questions must be a resounding no.

There are proven strategies that work to create a future in rural communities - small business development, value-added market development and entrepreneurship in all fields. But the federal government must start investing in these strategies, instead of undermining rural communities by oversubsidizing mega-farms to drive smaller operations out of business.

The payment limits fight, of course, is a battle that has been fought before. Ensuring that farm program benefits flow to small and mid-sized family farms has been a priority of the Center for Rural Affairs for decades.

Of course, we're not alone; countless organizations and individuals have fought the same fight, again and again. But this time around, things were supposed to be different.

A Midwesterner, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would chair the Senate Agriculture Committee. In fact, a southerner no longer was in charge of either agriculture committee nor congressional leadership. Reform was in the air.

Unfortunately, that air turned out to be unfit to breathe. All summer long, Conrad bragged of working hand-in-hand with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a noted opponent of payment limits. Chambliss and Conrad succeeded in quashing Harkin's dreams of a truly visionary farm bill. That vision included real payment limits, increased rural economic development and more incentives for farmers to follow conservation practices.

Instead, Conrad and Chambliss forced Harkin to accept a status quo bill, despite the glaring need for true reform in farm and rural policy.

Furthermore, Conrad's actions undermined Dorgan, his fellow North Dakota senator. Dorgan has shown true leadership, working for years to achieve real payment limitation reform. Yet after voting for Dorgan's payment limit proposal in 2002 and 2005, Conrad voted against it last week.

He claimed he was honoring a commitment he had made previously. That commitment should have been made to Dorgan, not a senator from Georgia. And the commitment kept should have been the commitment to support payment limitations that Conrad made to North Dakota citizens.

Conrad could have won a better farm bill had he simply said "no" to another farm bill that destroys family farming. The southerners fight hard against payment limitations. But had Conrad fought just as hard for a farm bill that strengthens family farms and rural communities, southerners would have agreed to reasonable payment limitations. They will not kill farm programs that have paid more than $100 per acre on cotton, rice and peanuts because of a $250,000 payment cap.

Had Conrad fought as hard for payment limits as southern senators fight against them, we would have payment limits today.

We are headed down a dangerous road. The family farm and owner-operated small business have been the foundation of rural America for centuries. And rural America is the foundation for the rest of the country.

We should beware the trend towards concentration in wealth, land ownership, and business. The result is dying rural communities. There is an alternative: a future built on small business, entrepreneurship and thriving family farms.

But we must demand that our elected officials embrace that alternative and work toward a positive future for rural America.

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