Subcommittees draft proposals on various programs

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The House version of the 2007 farm bill was beginning to take shape as two subcommittees of the Committee on Agriculture tabled proposals for conservation, energy, livestock, dairy and poultry subtitles before the Memorial Day break.

Despite concerns over the need for increased acreage for corn and other food and feed crops with biofuel potential, the subcommittee on conservation, credit, energy and research under the chairmanship of Representative Tim Holden of Pennsylvania on May 22 proposed the Conservation Reserve Program, the nation’s principal conservation program, be extended through 2012. The subcommittee did not propose raising or lowering the current cap on enrollment at 39.2 million acres.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota earlier called for raising the cap on C.R.P. enrollment to 45 million acres, with the increase aimed at drawing in acres that also could be farmed under certain circumstances for producing switchgrass and other biomass-producing crops. Several agricultural industry and food organizations favor a smaller C.R.P. that targets the most environmentally sensitive cropland, with acres that could be farmed in an environmentally responsible manner brought back into production.

The limit on enrollment of acres into the Wetland Reserve Program would be raised to 3,775,000 acres from the current 2,275,000 acres, under the subcommittee’s proposals, but only if funds are available. Also contingent on funds being available, the subcommittee proposed to allow additional enrollment of 5 million acres into the Grassland Reserve Program and the doubling in annual funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, to $2 billion.

Funding increases for these programs would come largely from money the subcommittee proposed to redirect from the Conservation Security Program. A proposed $1.1-billion cut in C.S.P. funding would ensure no new contracts would be entered into under the current C.S.P. A simplified C.S.P. would go into effect for fiscal years 2012 to 2017.

The energy proposals considered by the subcommittee included a federal loan guarantee program for those engaged in building bio-refineries and biofuel production plants. The subcommittee’s proposals also would reauthorize and aim to improve several existing bioenergy programs.

The subcommittee on livestock, dairy and poultry won kudos from the dairy industry for its effort, especially for its proposal to make permanent the dairy forward pricing program, which authorizes milk producers and cooperatives to voluntarily enter into forward contracts with milk handlers at prices deemed to satisfy all regulated minimum milk price requirements.

"Providing the ability for broader forward contracting as a permanent program will go a long way toward improving financial stability for more dairy producers and processors," said Connie Tipton, president and chief executive officer, International Dairy Foods Association, Washington.

The subcommittee proposals also require a dairy product prices support program through federal purchasing of dairy products, extends the Dairy Export Incentive Program, streamlines the federal milk marketing order process by instituting deadlines and requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reassess its reporting procedures for nonfat dry milk and its effect on the milk marketing order minimum prices.

The subcommittee proposed the repeal of the prohibition on the use of a mandatory animal identification system to implement country-of-origin labeling.

The subcommittee’s proposals did not discuss the extension or funding for the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which provides support to milk producers when prices drop below a set level. But MILC payments only apply to milk production of about 160 cows, so it is favored more by smaller dairy farmers than larger dairy operations.

The MILC program was set to expire at the end of August, a month before the expiration of other farm bill commodity programs. But the Iraq war supplemental spending bill included a provision to fund the extension of MILC through September, so it would expire with the rest of the farm bill. The program is contentious. But its extension through September in effect would increase the amount of money available for revised commodity programs in the 2007 farm bill and make it more probable that MILC will be continued.

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