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Farmers wary of 'green' provisions in farm bill
By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
September 24, 2001
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Congress is debating how much to spend on a new farm bill. And there's a growing debate over what kind of programs to fund. Environmental groups are increasingly demanding, and getting, more spending on conservation programs. Many farmers say they're concerned about organizations with no ag background shaping farm policy.

It's harvest time for grain farmers across the Midwest. Many of them are watching Congress as it prepares to write a new farm bill. While some activists hope to include more conservation programs in the farm bill, many farmers are wary.
(MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
MID-SEPTEMBER BRINGS A LULL BETWEEN WHEAT AND SOYBEAN HARVEST for Ken Lougheed, so he's paying a lot of attention to 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," says Lougheed. "We're probably more aware of what's going on than a lot of environmental groups are."

Lougheed says he's seen what happens when environmentalists help write farm legislation. He points to the "swamp buster" wetland protection program as an example of well-intentioned but intrusive government. Lougheed says a bureaucrat who's never set foot on his farm is making decisions about where wetlands are located.

"We need to have more common sense in these issues, because it's nonsense."

Lougheed says he's never actually talked to an environmentalist, but he'd welcome the chance to seek common ground on conservation issues.

That may be easier said than done. Minnesota Seventh District Congressman Collin Peterson sits on the House Agriculture Committee. He says finding middle ground can be politically 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 clashing, and the people in the middle are just keeping their heads down."

Peterson says farmers' fear 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.

"Farmers have been very good stewards of the land for years. We're probably more aware of what's going on than a lot of environmental groups are."

- Farmer Ken Lougheed
"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 going to have our way,'" says Peterson. "The biggest problem is these groups are based in the urban areas. It's not their fault, they just don't understand."

Peterson says farm interests must learn to compromise with environmentalists, because farm state lawmakers no longer have the political clout to pass a farm bill without votes from urban members, who 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. 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," he says.

Peterson says almost everyone on both sides agrees conservation programs are important, but as always, the devil is in the details. Environmental groups want to shift funding from traditional farm commodity programs to conservation. Farm groups staunchly oppose that idea, arguing new conservation initiatives should have new funding. That's unlikely this year given the present federal budget outlook.

There's also disagreement over which conservation programs to fund. The House favors expanding the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle environmentally-sensitive land. Some farm groups oppose taking more land out of production, and some rural county officials say such a move will further damage tenuous rural economies.

In the Senate, Ag Committee Chair Tom Harkin of Iowa is pushing the Conservation Security Act. It 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 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 they're not understood, they don't make sense, and there's a whole lot of shouting in the wings about what we ought to be doing," he says.

Christopherson says the cacaphony 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 ag budget.

More coverage
  • Conservationists want more 'green' in farm bill

    More information
  • USDA Conservation Reserve Program
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
  • Minnesota Department of Agriculture CRP program
  • Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation
  • Farm Service Agency farm bill information page