The complexion will change in the U.S. Senate – all triggered by one man, Sen. James Jeffords. The complexion also will change for U.S. agriculture, at least in terms of Senate committee chairmanships and in the related programs and policies.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is a safe bet to become the next Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, replacing Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). Harkin’s assignment is logical since he is the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Among the more significant changes you can expect is an increased emphasis on the environment, including more money shifting over to conservation payments for farmers and ranchers who adopt eco-friendly practices. He also has supported strict environmental regulations for large livestock operations. In an Associate Press report from a meeting in Iowa, Harkin promised “significant changes” in farm policy and said “conservation is going to be an integral part of the new farm bill.”

Harkin is a strong proponent of “family farms”. The unsettled nature of the national pork checkoff, and the strong opposition in Harkin’s home state of Iowa could keep that issue alive long term. He has lobbied for increased government scrutiny of agribusiness mergers and consolidations.

As ag committee chair, Harkin would play a major role in revamping the Freedom to Farm bill, which expires next year. Both Harkin and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who will become the majority leader, have been critical of the law that lowered price supports. Harkin plans to push for a safety net for producers when commodity prices drop.

Food safety is another priority Harkin intends to address, indicating that he would push for more stringent food safety measures.

The 1996 Farm Bill is not due to expire until next year, but there are signs that the Senate Democrats want to rewrite it before then– the Senate Republicans had no such plans. While that’s always a tricky and cumbersome task, the House Republicans are already laying the groundwork for new Farm Bill provisions. As a matter of fact, House Ag. Committee Chair, Larry Combest (R-Texas), says he hopes to have a new bill ready by the August recess.

While the Senate is still very equally divided, the switch in power – and committee assignments – will let the Democrats set the agenda, and agriculture will see a shift. Harkin definitely brings different agendas when it comes to trade, taxes, ag concentration and large hog operations as well as other ag issues compared to his Republican predecessor. You will need to pay attention to the developments as they relate your business strategies.