Cut crop subsidies, aid land stewardship: groups

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 10, 2007 6:51pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators writing the new U.S. farm law ought to reduce, or even eliminate, crop subsidies and boost land stewardship and rural economic development, a group of small-farm advocates, environmentalists and budget-cutters said on Wednesday.

The Senate Agriculture Committee was expected to draft its farm bill later this month. The House version, passed in July, makes modest changes in crop supports and allots more money for public nutrition, land protection, biofuels and specialty crops like tomatoes.

Three major issues for the Senate committee will be whether to pare the $5.2 billion guaranteed annually to grain, cotton and soybean farmers, whether to lower the amount a farmer can collect and how to apportion money among other Agriculture Department programs, such as food stamps and renewable energy.

"We really need to have a serious effort to reform the farm bill in the Senate, and it's going to be hard going," said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group. He faulted the House bill for "phony reforms" of farm subsidy limits.

Oxfam America and nine other groups announced during a telephone news conference a series of television and newspaper advertisements with the tagline, "Make the farm bill fair." Oxfam America said it paid for the $225,000 campaign.

Although united for reform, Oxfam and its allies in the teleconference have differing goals. Some, like EWG and the Land Stewardship Project, based in Minnesota, want more money for land stewardship and rural development. Taxpayers for Common Sense would phase out crop supports altogether.

"We're hoping to see some meaningful reforms at the end of the day," said Liam Brody of Oxfam America, which says excessive U.S. subsidies hurt poor farmers around the world.

Specialty crop growers -- farmers who produce fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery plants -- seek more federal funding of export, crop research and pest control programs.

They have their own alliance, which hopes to persuade the Senate to double the $1.6 billion in new funding approved by the House.

An alliance member, who asked not to be identified, said some reformers "just want to blow things up, with less interest in where the pieces land."

He said the alliance's drive for expanded funding, backed by 36 senators, may stand in the Senate as a proxy for reform of traditional crop subsidies.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a member of the Agriculture Committee and the Republican leader of the Finance Committee, said soil, water and wildlife conservation should be at the front of the line for new funding in the farm bill.

A tax bill approved by the Finance Committee effectively gives the Agriculture Committee $3 billion in new funding.

Grassley said the farm bill also should help black farmers get a hearing on discrimination claims, should assure growers of fair play in dealings with agribusinesses, and should expand a program that helps farmers dabble in value-added products.

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