Conservation and renewable energy are major components of the first major agricultural bill introduced Wednesday prior to the 2007 expiration of the current farm bill.
The bill, "The Healthy Farms, Foods and Fuels Act of 2006," is sponsored by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and has 26 cosponsors.
The bill boosts funding for renewable energy development annual loan guarantees from $200 million to $2 billion. Healthy foods also receive emphasis in the bill, calling for expanded programs that provide local, healthy food choices to school children and dramatically expand coupon programs that allow elderly and low income Americans to shop at farmer's markets.
Overall it calls for a double in conservation spending. Specifically, the bill doubles incentives to $2 billion a year for farmers and ranchers to protect drinking water supplies and make other environmental improvements. It also provides funding to restore nearly 3 million acres of wetlands and protect 6 million acres of farm and ranchland from urban sprawl.
Three former chiefs of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the American Farmland Trust endorsed the bill. "In the past, most farm spending has flowed to large producers of select crops," says Pearlie Reed, NRCS Chief from 1998 to 2002 and former State Conservationist for Maryland and California. "When we renew federal farm and food policies next year, Congress has a chance to ensure that more farm spending is linked to rising levels of environmental stewardship - helping more farmers and the environment."
Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, states the bill is a key component of a new direction and framework needed for U.S. agriculture policy. "This bill corrects the shortcomings of the 2002 Farm Bill, which under-funded programs providing incentives to producers for enhanced conservation of natural resources and protection of water quality," he says.
The lion's share of federal support for American farmers flows to less than 10% of the nation's agricultural producers. Farmers in 25 out of 435 congressional districts collected half of all farm spending during the last decade.
"Expanding conservation incentives will ensure that farm policy helps all farmers and ranchers regardless of how much land they farm, whether they grow traditional or specialty crops, or where they live," says Ed Case, D-Hi., a member of the House Agriculture Committee. "All rural communities will share in the environmental benefits the programs in this bill make available."
Grossi acknowledged change is coming in U.S. farm policy. The act is a welcome piece of that change, but a larger, more comprehensive transformation of farm policy is needed for the 2007 Farm Bill, he says. Despite the "suspension" of the Doha Round trade negotiations, forces for change in the 2007 Farm Bill remain, including new World Trade Organization dispute cases like the Brazilian cotton case against the U.S., continued budget deficits that will make it a challenge to maintain funding levels, the increasingly poor perception of farm subsidies among taxpayers, and insufficient funds for conservation, nutrition, energy and rural development, AFT explains.