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Column: Harkin’s Ag Committee may not be as jarring for Southern farmers

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin will become chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry when Democrats assume control of the House and Senate in January.

Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he anticipates naming Harkin Ag Committee chairman when he meets with the new Republican minority leader to discuss the make-up of each committee.

Harkin is no stranger to the post, having served there during the debate over the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act or 2002 farm bill in 2001 and 2002. (Democrats controlled the Senate when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords declared himself an independent in 2001.)

Although he didn’t get everything he wanted in the legislation, Harkin was able to include the new Conservation Security Program and the first ever energy title in the 2002 farm bill.

The naming of an Iowan to such a key role in the next farm bill debate may cause some apprehension among cotton and rice farmers because of the payment limit stance of Iowa’s senior senator, Charles Grassley.

But commodity group leaders say Harkin has never shown the same enthusiasm for tightening payment limits as Sens. Grassley or Byron Dorgan, Harkin’s Democratic colleague from North Dakota.

“Obviously, the setting has changed a little bit,” said one farm group staffer. “But, at the same time, I believe you will have two chairmen who are extraordinary supporters of U.S. agriculture, as were the previous chairmen. (Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is expected to chair the House Committee.)

“So having an Iowan and having a Minnesotan in the House is not a concern because they both are very interested in what’s best for U.S. agriculture. They bring a different sort of view, but they have a desire for a strong agricultural sector for the U.S. economy.”

Harkin said budget pressures are likely to lead to efforts to streamline farm programs, but he doesn’t expect the alterations to be earth shattering. “I’ll be the last person to pull the rug out from underneath our established farmers. They can’t have that done. If there’s a transition, it’s got to be a smooth one.”

Harkin said he wants to provide more incentives to farmers to experiment with crops such as switchgrass that may have potential for use in cellulosic ethanol. The latter could help U.S. agriculture meet the growing demand for renewable fuel supplies.

The senator is also expected to push for increased funding for the Conservation Security Program, which the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to fully fund and the Bush administration has never fully implemented.

Harkin and Peterson’s first challenge may be dealing with the Bush administration’s farm bill blueprint, which some expect it to unveil in January. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has said subsidy payments should be reduced to prevent further legal challenges to U.S. farm programs.

“We’re not going to have the WTO write our farm policy,” he said, adding that a new farm bill “needs to be predictable, equitable and beyond challenge.”

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