This fall, Congress is expected to debate how much to spend on a new farm bill, and there may be sharp disagreement over what programs should be funded. Traditionally, the money has been used to supplement farmers’ income. But now, environmental groups are increasingly demanding, and getting more money for conservation programs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Gunderson reports that many farmers are concerned about organizations with no agricultural background shaping farm policy:
This fall, Congress is expected to debate how much to spend on a new farm bill, and there may be sharp disagreement over what programs should be funded.
Traditionally, the money has been used to supplement farmers’ incomes. But now, environmental groups are increasingly demanding, and getting more money for conservation programs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Gunderson reports that many farmers are concerned
about organizations with no agricultural background shaping farm policy:
As the fall harvest winds down, Ken Lougheed has more time to catch up on the farm bill debate. He’s not happy about the possibility of more government imposed conservation programs.
“Farmers have been very good stewards of the land for years. We have to live in the same communities, we have to drink the same water, breathe the same air. We’re probably more aware of what’s going on than a lot of environmental groups are.”
Lougheed farms several hundred acres on the Minnesota North Dakota border near Fargo. He says he’s seen what happens when environmentalists help write farm legislation. He points to a wetland protection program known as “Swampbuster” as an example of well-intentioned but intrusive government. Lougheed says a bureaucrat who’s never set foot on his farm decides where wetlands are located. And with that decision, parts of his land are taken away from farming. Lougheed says that makes him feel helpless, and angry.
“We need to have more common sense in these issues. Because it’s nonsense, there’s no common sense involved in it and we need to have more common sense.”
Lougheed says he’s never actually talked to an environmentalist, but he’d welcome the chance to seek common ground on conservation issues. But if the current farm bill discussion is any indication, that common ground may be difficult to find. Environmental groups want to shift funding from traditional farm commodity programs to conservation. Most farm groups staunchly oppose that idea, arguing new conservation initiatives should have new funding. There’s also disagreement over which conservation programs to fund. The House favors expanding the Conservation Reserve Program that pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production. But in the Senate, Ag Committee Chair Tom Harkin of Iowa is pushing the Conservation Security Act. That legislation would pay farmers to incorporate as yet undefined stewardship practices into their farm operation. Farmers fear that would, as one put it, let the environmentalists run the farm. Minnesota Seventh District Congressman, Collin Peterson, sits on the House Ag Committee and knows the middle ground on this issue can be hazardous. He’s been criticized by some of his farm constituents for voting in favor of expanded conservation programs, and painted as anti-environment by some environmental groups.
“You get those two groups on the extremes, in a lot of cases clashing, and the people in the middle are just keeping their heads down.”
Peterson says the fear some farmers have of environmentalists is well founded. He says environmental groups have a variety of political viewpoints, ranging from moderate to extreme; but he believes most have little real understanding of agriculture.
“They sit in their ivory tower and say, well, you guys are getting all that money. We’re paying you all that money, then we’re gonna have our way. The biggest problem is these groups are based in the urban areas. It’s not their fault, they just don’t understand. ”
But Peterson says farm interests must learn to compromise with environmentalists. That’s because farm state lawmakers no longer have the political clout to pass a farm bill without votes from urban members. And those urban members often represent environmental positions. But Peterson says, like abortion and gun control, environmental discussions often can’t get past ideology.
“The problem I have is you’re not even debating what the real issue is. They’re out there on their ideological extremes and they’re raising money and getting people stirred up and we never have the debate about the middle where we could get something done and make things better for people.”
At least some farm organizations say they are willing to compromise.
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Al Christopherson says it’s clear the days of farm groups writing the farm bill are over. They need support from environmental interests to pass legislation. But he says most farmers would be happy just to have Congress decide on conservation priorities and stick to them.
“Farmers have a very difficult time adapting to them if A; they’re not understood, B; they don’t make sense, and C; there’s a whole lot of shouting in the wings about what we ought to be doing.”
Christopherson says the cacophony will only get louder and the confusion greater as a dwindling farm population continues to lose political clout in Washington, and other interests vie for a piece of the agriculture budget.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Dan Gunderson.