Hoffmann column: Farm bill gets mixed reaction in Western Wisconsin

Many farmers and agribusiness people have been following the progress of the soon-to-be-passed federal farm bill with mixed reactions.

Some like the fact that the bill, which will set agriculture policies for the next five years, because it essentially preserves the status quo. It continues the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which provides subsidies to small farmers when prices drop below a certain amount. It includes other elements that have helped farmers — especially those with larger operations — have decent incomes in the last couple years.

But, people who hoped for a shift in federal subsidies, more conservation, increased support for organic farming and other reforms aren’t that happy with the $280 million-plus bill that Congress is close to passing.

Their concerns are understandable. With concerns about fuel costs, the falling dollar, the widening gap between haves and have-nots and other economic woes, status quo might not be good enough in the long run.

Cong. Ron Kind of La Crosse has been one of those supporting reforms. He and others argue that the current subsidy program, and the one in the proposed bill, gives too much to large farmers and not enough to low and middle-range farmers.

“What I find ironic with members of my own party is that they are quick to criticize President Bush’s tax cuts to the most wealthy,” Kind said. “But they’re loath to look at these commodity payments to millionaires under this farm bill.”

Agriculture is a $28.6 billion industry in Wisconsin. The vast majority of the state’s 76,500 farms are family farms, with an average size of about 200 acres, according to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. In California and elsewhere, farms typically are thousands of acres.

According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report; In Wisconsin, about 48 percent of farmers collect some form of subsidy payment. Farmers in the state collected $4.3 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2006, according to analysis by the Environmental Working Group. About half that money went to corn growers, while some $729 million went to dairy farmers.

Although many of the subsidies don’t kick in when prices are high, so-called direct payments continue to go to farmers even when they are making record profits. The government spends about $5.2 billion a year on direct payments nationwide.

Kind also is concerned about the levels of funding for conservation programs in the bill. He offered a motion on the House floor last week, directing the farm bill negotiators to maintain the highest levels of funding for critical conservation programs.

The legislators who are crafting the final farm bill compromise have the option of taking the provisions of the bill passed in the House, those passed in the Senate, or making up new ones. Kind’s motion instructs them to adopt the House funding levels, which are higher than the Senate levels and those currently under discussion. It is scheduled for discussion today.

“With increased farming intensity on existing lands and pressure to bring even more land into production to meet bio-fuels mandates and help relieve rising food prices, these programs are more important now than ever,” Kind said. “The House passed a strong conservation title to the farm bill last year, and my motion instructs the House and Senate conferees to stick to the highest level possible for conservation rather than letting those funds give way to other programs.”

The farm bill passed by the House last July allocated an increase of $5.7 billion in conservation spending over the next 10 years, but the conference committee has released discussion drafts containing only a $4 billion increase.

Kind’s motion, if passed, would be a non-binding instruction that the conference committee accept higher levels of funding as passed by the House for certain conservation programs.

Some think proposals from Kind and others are off base, or don’t do enough. In the Blog for Rural America, analyst Dan Owens wrote the proposals do little in the way of making sure that farm program benefits flow to small and mid-size family farms, do not close the loopholes used to avoid farm program payment limits, shift large amounts of money to conservation programs which subsidize enormous manure lagoons and the concentration of livestock production and place much-needed resources behind some rural economic development programs, while others receive inadequate amounts.

Organic farmers in Western Wisconsin — a hot bed for organics — have urged reforms that would help lead to more sustainable agriculture and healthier food. The national Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has worked in collaboration with a diverse alliance of family farm, sustainable agriculture, rural, public health, anti-hunger, environmental, faith-based and other groups in lobbying on the farm bill.

This alliance is called the Farm and Food Policy Project (FFPP) and reflects a commitment to policy reforms that address the full spectrum of public needs addressed in the bill. Many feel the current version of the bill falls well short of what should be done.

President Bush has threatened to veto the farm bill because he feels it is too expensive. Recent reports are that the Bush Administration is backing off the veto threat because of recent compromises on the bill.

It remains to be seen whether those compromises will please farmers and agribusiness people in Western Wisconsin.