U.S. lawmakers agree on $867 billion farm bill

By Roz Brown, Public News Service - Iowa

People who use and value farming-conservation practices are applauding parts of the U.S. Senate's newly passed Farm Bill. They think the legislation will benefit beginning farmers and help sustain the vitality of rural communities.

The Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers who enter into multi-year contracts with the government to implement conservation practices, remains in place, although its long-term funding was reduced.

Anna Johnson, senior policy associate for the Center for Rural Affairs, said she's encouraged that the bill will continue many programs upon which Midwestern farmers have come to rely.

"Increased support for key practices, like cover crops and resource-conserving, crop rotations," she said. "But the way it's set up and divvied up, CSP - the Conservation Stewardship Program - is going to be at a disadvantage going into the next Farm Bill, and funding's going to decrease over time."

She said one disappointment was a decision to expand rather than close loopholes that allow mega-farms to collect even higher payments. That expansion of eligibility for crop subsidies was one reason Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, cited for voting against the bill. With those loopholes remaining in place, Johnson said, America is likely to see more farm consolidation as taxpayer dollars are funneled to the largest farm operations.

"There are policies that favor the largest operations over smaller ones, and when you have that, you don't have a level playing field, so it's opening the door wider for abuse of the program," she said. "We're really disappointed that Congress has chosen to take that route."

Johnson said several programs included in the bill will benefit beginning, socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers. Perhaps the biggest relief, she said, is that farmers now have some clarity, which they haven't had since the previous Farm Bill expired at the end of September. The legislation now will head to the House and, if passed, to the president for his signature.

The bill is online at congress.gov.