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Farm bill: More of the same, plus some real change

The new farm bill is a Byzantine web of special interest riders, reform, lack of reform, giveaways, ax-grinding political payback, and large amounts of cash — nearly $300 billion total; in short, it’s like every other farm bill, only more so.

A farm bill, which is supposed to be passed every five years but rarely makes deadline, gets scant attention from mainstream media, especially considering its price tag. Perhaps it’s the word “farm” in the title, which many reporters think means boring. It is also really, really difficult to understand.

“Even the staff doesn’t know what’s all in it,” said Dennis Olson, a policy analysis for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.

House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on the general outlines of the bill late last week. Final negotiations are under way, and it may pass Congress as soon as this week.

Peterson fights over sugar imports

One major point of contention: House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, DFL-Minn., and President Bush are butting heads over sugar supports. Peterson, whose district farms more sugar beets than almost any place in the country, wants imported sugar to be used only for ethanol production, rather than to compete with Minnesota sugar on the consumer market.

Peterson also did not care for the activities of the reform-minded Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who called current farm policy “a joke.”

“I told him, ‘Ron, you’re a good guy, but you’re way out of your league here,'” Peterson said to Time magazine.

Kind told the Associated Press: “From what I have seen, this deal looks like a nightmare for those who were hoping for a better farm bill. Negotiators managed to avoid every opportunity to reform wasteful, outdated subsidies while piling on additional layers of unnecessary spending.”

What’s been lost in the political dust storm is that there are a few areas of real change in the legislation.

Incentives for new biofuel stock

One important area is in the bioenergy sector, Olson said. New money is in the proposal to pay farmers to start growing alternative cellulose stock as a way to phase in the use of mixed prairie grasses, for example, and ease them out of the corn ethanol business. The bill would reduce a tax credit for ethanol processors to 45 cents a gallon from 51 cents, although that tax credit would be extended through 2010. A new subsidy, worth as much as $1.01 a gallon, would be created for cellulosic ethanol.

Another item of interest for Minnesota farms in the new bill is a guaranteed loan program for farmers to improve energy efficiency or produce their own energy, like an on-farm biodiesel operation. There is also language in the bill to help market locally grown foods, and promotion funds for fruit and vegetable growers.

“It’s a compromise,” Olson said. “You’ve got to get 51 percent to get it through. How many other countries have the diversity of landscapes and regional agricultures as we do? And then the food stamp program is thrown in.” The bill would increase spending on food stamps and nutrition programs by $1 billion a year.

The bill also, for the first time, requires the labeling of imported meat and vegetables, a response to concerns about food safety. Also new is a $3.8 billion disaster-relief program for farmers, meant for drought-sensitive places like the Dakotas and Montana. 

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