Conservation spending would double over the next decade and producers would have two new subsidy programs to pick from under an overhaul of agricultural programs being proposed by the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The plan announced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would cost the same as legislation passed by the House earlier this month, about $170 billion over 10 years.

``I believe I made good on what I said I was going to do and that was to make conservation a cornerstone,' says Harkin. He expects the Bush administration to like his plan better than the House's. The administration has been sharply critical of the House bill, saying it would encourage overproduction and primarily help big farms that need assistance the least. The administration has urged Congress to delay final action on an overhaul of farm programs until next year. Existing programs expire at the end of September 2002.

Among key details of Harkin's plan:


  • It would keep two existing subsidy programs that provide fixed annual payments to grain and cotton farms and guarantee minimum income for their crops. Crop subsidy rates would be increased for most crops.
  • Two new programs would be created: One would provide additional money when income falls below predetermined ``target' levels - $270 an acre for corn, $215 for soybeans, $120 for wheat and $360 for cotton. The second new program would reward farmers for good environmental practices, such as erosion control, with payments of $20,000 to $50,000 a year.



Under Harkin's plan, conservation spending would rise $1.8 billion a year by 2006, more if the payments for pro-environmental practices are included, up from $2 billion under existing programs. The House bill increases conservation programs by $1.2 billion annually. The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take highly erodible land out of production, would be increased from 34 million acres to 40 million acres under Harkin's plan and there would be additional funds for a variety of other programs. Environmentalists want to increase conservation spending by as much as $3 billion a year.

The Bush administration has endorsed a plan by the Senate Agriculture Committee's senior Republican, Richard Lugar, that would provide a $2.6 billion increase by 2006. Harkin's plan is ``just marginally better than the House.”

It's a major disappointment,' says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. But Ferd Hoeffer, a spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, says Harkin has ``done a credible job of addressing the priority concerns of the conservation community.'

The Bush administration has endorsed Lugar's measure, which would phase out crop subsidies in favor of giving farmers vouchers to buy revenue insurance. Agriculture Department spokesman Kevin Herglotz says he had not seen Harkin's plan and could not comment on it.

Harkin says he expects the Senate Agriculture Committee to finish work on a farm bill next week but the legislation may not go the Senate floor until January or February. Of the House bill, Harkin says, ``We're using the money just a little bit differently than they do, no not a little, a lot differently.'

Associated Press