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FRIENDS OR FOES: Environmentalists seek common ground with producers on farm bill

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Farmers' associations, commodities groups and elected officials aren't the only ones seeking to have a say in the 2007 farm bill. In early February, the Izaak Walton League of America kicked off a series of public forums o...

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Farmers' associations, commodities groups and elected officials aren't the only ones seeking to have a say in the 2007 farm bill. In early February, the Izaak Walton League of America kicked off a series of public forums outlining its goals and inviting input from the agriculture industry.

"We knew all along that Detroit Lakes (Minn.) would be our first stop," says IWLA director of agricultural programs Brad Redlin, a native of Sydney, Mont., who still is involved in his family's farming operation.

Redlin authored the IWLA's 2007 Farm Bill report, a 43-page booklet detailing the organization's recommendations and reasoning.

"Our policy is set by members passing resolutions at their local chapters, up to their state divisions, then at the national convention," says Redlin, who spoke to the group gathered in Detroit Lakes.

Redlin says their three major goals are stewardship, prosperity (for independent family farms) and fairness. They suggest four proposals for achieving the goals: closing loopholes, maximizing conservation compliance, investment in conservation, and the creation of conservation-based agricultural energy.

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Farm bill flaws

Delicate grasslands and wetlands are more vulnerable to agricultural expansion, the group says. According to their report, "technological advancements, commodity payments, crop insurance subsidies, and emergency disaster payments enable farmers to plant crops profitably in the most marginal of soils."

Rather than gambling on crop production, the IWLA is suggesting incentives in the 2007 farm bill for farmers who preserve those marginal areas, which often border delicate grasslands and wetlands.

The IWLA report also criticizes existing commodity payments for encouraging many producers to overuse fertilizers. Citing USDA-ERS statistics, they say areas receiving some of the highest per acre commodity payments also have the highest potential for nutrient runoff leading to water impairment and pollution.

"Commodity payments with limitless incentives for maximizing production can increase environmental threats in the form of higher fertilizer application rates," the report states. The IWLA says commodity program safety nets were not meant to drive maximum production.

Fiscal conservation is another big component of the IWLA report. Their report states, "closing payment limit loopholes is not an attack on farmers." Instead, they say, most farmers are opposed to wasteful spending. By eliminating the loopholes, they believe funding could be found for increased conservation efforts, without taking money away from other important government programs.

"Money is obviously limited, but is there spending currently in the farm bill that is not constructive, that is not providing great benefit?" Redlin asked the Detroit Lakes group. "And are there other areas in the farm bill where, if there were more money, it could provide better benefits?"

More report details

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The IWLA report also calls for stricter enforcement of conservation compliance. It suggests those requirements be extended to all cropland receiving federal farm program benefits, if that land "experiences leaching and runoff of pollutants and nutrients, or soil erosion at excessive levels."

The report also recommends the creation of state-level independent review boards "for waivers issued for non-compliance determinations."

Other priorities include reauthorization of 250,000 acres per year in the Wetland Reserve Program, reauthorization of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program in coordination with local and regional plans, reauthorization of the Grassland Reserve Program, and reauthorization of the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

Farmers Union viewpoint

At the Detroit Lakes meeting, there was strong support for payment limitations.

"We are not in favor of supporting the Ted Turners and Paris Hiltons of the world," Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson stated, and several audience members nodded in agreement. Peterson says some of the money saved could be spent on bioenergy research and production.

"I would consider the Bush administration's proposals for renewable energy woefully inadequate. We need to have an Apollo or Manhattan Project mentality," he says, referring to the aggressive government funding poured into those national research projects.

In recent years, Peterson thinks Minnesotans have been "leaning more green."

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"Fifty-two percent of the people live in a suburban area, and if you look at Democrats and Republicans, you'll find that they usually vote with a green finger," he says. "Most of the programs you end up with are going to be slanted toward a conservation mind."

He sees the same thing happening on a national level.

"But if you're going to have a green farm bill, you're going to have to pay people and you have to put technical assistance on the ground," he says firmly.

Wildlife priorities

Representing wildlife interests in Upper Midwest, Scott McLeod, a regional biologist at the Ducks Unlimited office in Bismarck, N.D. admitted his number one priority is wildlife and habitat preservation. His territory includes Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

"Our motto has been to farm the best and conserve the rest," he says, admitting that in the prairie pothole region, CRP can be a sensitive issue.

"Right now, there's about 8 million acres in CRP, and we're pretty happy with the impact it's had on waterfowl populations. Our priority for CRP is to maintain that acreage," says McLeod.

"We understand there are probably some acres that aren't considered marginal which could be moved back into production, but obviously we'd like to see those replaced with some other marginal acres that might be out there."

He finds recent talk of using CRP acres for corn production, or even cellulosic switchgrass, worrisome. "We don't think the CRP program is the best fit for cellulosic production. Overall, we feel we would be better off if there was a separate program designed specifically for the cellulosic ethanol industry."

Ducks Unlimited also is pushing for a "sodsaver amendment" to the 2007 farm bill. McLeod says from 2002 to 2005, over 300,000 acres of eastern Dakota native prairie were converted to cropland agriculture.

"These are very marginal soils, at best, and a lot of years no crop is raised on them."

Middle ground?

If there's an agency representing a middle ground between agriculture and environmentalists, it might be the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. According to its policy statement, the group is working to "replace the bias toward bigness and concentration," with genuine opportunities for family farms and ranches, as well as "environmental stewardship."

Traci Bruckner, assistant director of the center's rural policy program, further explains its goals.

"We're big supporters of the Conservation Security Program," she says. "We aren't exactly pleased with the way it's been treated fundingwise, and implemented through the USDA, but we think it has great potential to help support small- and mid-sized family farms.

Bruckner says CSP benefits focus on how people treat the land, rather than what they're producing and how much.

The Center for Rural Affairs also is re-addressing cooperative conservation partnerships, which were approved in the last farm bill, but not really implemented, Bruckner says.

"Natural space is going to become an amenity that all of us crave."

She predicts natural spaces may become a development tool drawing visitors and young families back into rural areas. Ideally, she says agricultural producers who open their conservation lands to hunting, fishing, hiking and bird-watching should get incentives for providing public access.

Bruckner says, like many other groups attending the Detroit Lakes forum, the Center for Rural Affairs considers payment limitations their top priority for the new farm bill.

"Farmers tell us it's really destroying the small- and mid-sized family farms, and making it absolutely impossible for small, beginning farmers to get started," she warns.

The 'Ikes'

Some self-proclaimed "Ikes," as Izaak Walton League of America members often call themselves, were part of the Detroit Lakes audience. Dr. Bill Henke, a local physician, says his interest in outdoor sportsmanship and conservation makes the IWLA a natural fit for him.

"I guess the reason I got interested in the Izaak Walton League, and conservation in general, is that maybe it's a way for me to leave a little bit of a legacy," he says. "I love this area. It's beautiful, the aesthetics are good, and I just want to see it stay that way."

Henke's no stranger to agriculture. His family also has a long farming history in the lakes region.

"The farmers I interface with really want to see things done for the betterment of the land, but also on an economics scale. We're hearing that the economy is such that we have to reward how we work the land and what we do with it, blending conservation and commodities.

"The doctor side of me also makes me a little bit worried about what happens if we don't do this."

As the IWLA's point man for agriculture, Redlin says he's had to overcome some negative perceptions about the organization. He admits that recent wildlife rallies in the Minneapolis were perceived by some to be anti-agriculture, but insists that wasn't the goal of the rallies.

"I've known my whole life that farmers are the stewards of the land. They're the ones who have the most impact on it and have the greatest knowledge of it.

"Going into a meeting like we had today, I knew we would hear about stewardship from all the parties, but it does become a question of how it is best delivered. Some people may think one way is more heavy-handed or another is less advantageous to production agriculture, but the common ground was certainly the goal today."

Redlin says the IWLA seeks common sense solutions and is unique among wildlife groups because it doesn't just focus on one species.

"I really appreciate that we look at the whole picture, because we really can't exist in a vacuum."

He points to the IWLA motto, "defenders of soil, air, woods, waters, and wildlife," as a realistic, all-encompassing approach to conservation.

This spring, the IWLA is holding additional farm bill forums in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin. More information on the farm bill forums, as well as the full text of the Izaak Walton League of America's 2007 Farm Bill report, can be found at www.iwla.org .

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