Is the long, national ordeal over the 2007; oops, now the 2008 farm bill nearing an end?

That’s what farm leaders were wondering as members of a House-Senate conference committee approved the major elements of the new law during a meeting Thursday night (May 1).

The action came after the House and Senate voted to extend the current law until May 16 to allow staff members to work through finalizing the few remaining issues and obtain Congressional Budget Office scoring of the farm bill’s provisions.

“Today’s adoption of all major elements of the new farm bill brings us within a few steps of the finish line,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and chair of the House-Senate farm bill conference committee.

“This bill provides support for everything from agricultural research and beginning farmers to protecting our natural resources and helping to feed hungry families,” he said in a statement issued by the Agriculture Committee staff. “It looks to the future in renewable energy production, and it ensures farmers have the income protection they need.”

Harkin said conference committee members believe their bill, which must be voted on by the full House and Senate, will be one President Bush could sign despite his statements during a White House press conference early this week.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, met with the president Thursday to discuss Bush’s objections. Following the meeting, Chambliss told reporters the president expressed “philosophical” objections to the spending and payment limit reforms in the new farm bill, but was noncommittal on whether he would sign a bill.

Harkin said the farm bill approved Thursday night contained the following highlights:

Commodities Title:

The bill includes a newly named Producer Income Protection title that continues basic features of the 2002 bill, which farmers have thought worked well, and it gives producers a new option, beginning with the 2010 crop year, to choose to participate in a state-level revenue protection system.

The Average Crop Revenue program, modeled after legislation proposed by farmers and introduced by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, offers producers better options for managing risk of both yield and price declines on their farms.

Conservation Title:

The new CSP, renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program provides incentives for adopting, improving and maintaining sound conservation practices on land in agricultural production. Harkin said the program would enroll just under 13 million acres each year (starting in 2009) through 2017, for a total of nearly 115 million acres. An additional $1.1 billion was provided for CSP for a total of $12 billion over 10 years.

This title shifts the focus in conservation strongly in the direction of working land conservation. Funding that would not have been used in land retirement programs was redirected to programs that focus on reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and CSP.

Energy Title:

Increases Biofuels Production: The farm bill will accelerate commercialization of advanced biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol, by helping farmers produce biomass crops, by providing grants and loan guarantees to support these new biorefineries, and by increasing bioenergy research to guarantee that we have a continuing flow of more productive and resource-conservative technologies in the decades to come.

It also expands the renewable energy and energy efficiency program that has been helping farmers and ranchers and rural small businesses since it was adopted in the 2002 farm bill.

Livestock Title:

The new farm bill includes the first-ever Livestock Title to provide basic protections for producers in livestock and poultry markets. Among the highlights:

• Provides producers the ability to decline to be bound by an arbitration clause in a livestock or poultry contract.

• Enables a producer to settle a dispute in the Federal judicial district where he or she lives rather than where the company headquarters is located.

• Provides the compromise for country of origin labeling of meat, fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts.

• Improves oversight of USDA’s enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act by requiring the Department to provide an annual compliance report detailing the number and length of time spent on investigations of potential violations of the Act.

• Assist hog producers by authorizing a program for trichinae certification to promote trade and marketing of pork.

Nutrition Title:

Federal Food Assistance: Historic investments in fighting hunger and inadequate nutrition, including:

• Ending benefit erosion caused by inflation.

• Providing food assistance without requiring recipients to exhaust savings and retirement accounts.

• Increasing food assistance to households with high childcare costs.

• $1.25 billion dollars in commodity purchases for food banks.

• Child Nutrition: $1 billion to improve child nutrition by expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program nationally.

Research Title:

• Organic Research and Extension Initiative: The Research Title provides $78 million in mandatory funds for the program, which enhances the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market organic food, feed and fiber.

• Specialty Crop Research Initiative: The bill provides $230 million in mandatory funds for this new grants program to help meet the needs of producers and processors of specialty crops in the areas of mechanization, plant breeding, genetics, genomics, pests and diseases, and food safety.

Rural Development Title:

• Rural Water and Wastewater: $120 million in mandatory funds for the pending rural development loan and grant applications for rural water and wastewater assistance.

• Value-Added Producer Grant Program: $15 million for the program, which encourages independent producers of agricultural commodities to process their raw commodities into marketable goods.

• Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program: $15 million in mandatory funds for the program, which provides technical assistance and small loans to beginning entrepreneurs to help start businesses in rural areas.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables:

• Organics: Funding for The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program has been increased from $5 million in the last farm bill, to $22 million. The farm bill also supports the Organic Data Collection Initiative, which provides USDA and organic producers with national production and market data to effectively market their products.

• Pest and Disease Detection: Over $400 million over the next 10 years for a new program to improve pest and disease detection capabilities. The bill also provides $20 million for the National Clean Plant Network, which will strengthen research to improve plant health and eradicate plant viruses.

• Farmers’ Markets: expansion of the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, first created in the 2002 farm bill, by providing $33 million over the next five years to continue our investment in promoting fresh, local foods.

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