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Articles from 2002 In March


EWG adds more grist to propaganda mill

But two speeches by Michigan Congressman Nick Smith calling the Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland and other farmer-owned cooperatives “mega-farming operations” proved to be the last straw for Bell, a former undersecretary of agriculture and Indiana native.

Smith referenced the payments made to Riceland in statements on the floor of the House of Representatives on Feb. 26 and March 6. In them, he claimed Riceland and the other coops were recipients of massive amounts of taxpayer dollars.

“These are mega-farm operations, these are huge landowners,” said the congressman, noting that the operations were not 400- or 500-acre farms, but 40,000 to 80,000-acre farms.

Smith’s comments were typical of the wildly inaccurate and misleading statements that have been made in both Houses of Congress and in the national media since the Environmental Working Group (EWG) obtained farm payment records from USDA through the Freedom of Information Act and put them on the World Wide Web.

Farm organizations were bracing themselves for another round of such statements after the EWG updated its Web site with payment records from 2001 on March 27.

After Smith’s second speech on March 6, Bell wrote the congressman, pointing out that Riceland Foods, Inc., which markets rice, soybeans and wheat grown by its 9,000 grower-members, has no farming operations.

He noted that Riceland owns 243 acres of farmland adjacent to its existing processing facilities in Stuttgart that eventually will be used for new processing and storage facilities, but it receives no government farm payments on the land that is rented to a grower-member.

One reason for the confusion in the farm bill debate regarding payment limits, he said, is that people do not understand the marketing pools used by cooperatives in the South, particularly those operated by rice and cotton cooperatives.

“Under the marketing pool concept, members deliver their crops to the cooperative where a professional staff markets them. Earnings and expenses are shared among pool participants on a per unit basis of crops delivered,” Bell said.

Bell noted that Riceland and other cooperatives receive marketing loan benefits from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) on behalf of the individual members participating in the marketing pools.

“These funds are distributed to individual members according to their deliveries to the cooperative,” Bell said. “The cooperative tracks marketing loan assistance payments due each individual member by using the payment limits information provided by the USDA for individual members.”

Bell said that marketing cooperatives handling CCC benefits for their members is not a new development. “The process has been in existence for probably more than 50 years,” he said.

In response to media queries, a spokesman made no bones about the fact that the EWG had timed its update of the 2001 payment information to have maximum impact on members of the House-Senate conference committee negotiating a new farm bill.

“Certainly, we think it can have a large effect,” said Susanne Fleek, director of government relations for the EWG,” referring to the deliberations conferees will have on the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment when Congress returns from its April 9.

To farm organizations’ chagrin, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has written a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee advising them that he will re-introduce the payment limit amendment that he helped write if it is dropped from the farm bill conference committee report.

Dorgan advised Sens. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman, and Richard Lugar, the ranking member, that their first priority should be to “get a good farm bill in time for this year’s crops” but that they should also make every effort to ensure that they maintain meaningful payment limits in the new farm bill.

“A farm program needs public support in order to exist,” said Dorgan, “And lately this critical support has been declining due in part to the impression that most of the money is going to the largest corporate farms.”

Organizations such as the National Cotton Council have been trying to counteract such statements, noting that Dorgan’s comments and the amendment specifically are based on “incomplete and highly misleading” reports by the Environmental Working Group.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.

More people answer for farm markets?

One door to better prices might be to open up U.S. borders and let more people in, says Bruce Scherr, president and chief executive officer of Sparks Companies in Memphis.

The more people-more demand-higher price connection could be a long-term solution to ailing ag markets, according to Scherr. I don't know if a change in our immigration policy is a practical solution. But the markets sure need something.

“Fifteen years ago, a World Trade Center event would have driven the oil, grain and livestock markets wild,” Scherr said. “But here we sit with agricultural markets sitting on a flat line.”

In addition, “the U.S. economy has been on its keister and any recovery will be anemic at best. We have the lowest short-term interest rates in modern times. Yet our ag markets seem immune to these kinds of influences.”

According to Scherr, one reason for the lack of volatility “is unseen pricing taking place off organized exchanges. We don't always see the volatility.”

In addition, world trade markets have become more stable in recent years, noted Scherr. “In grain and soybeans, 10 to 15 years ago, we had a marketplace in the former Soviet Union that could take anywhere from 5 million to 10 million tons of grain and oilseed from us in a given quarter. So we had a volatile buyer out there that represented 20 million to 40 million tons of grain and oilseeds in any given year.

“Today, our biggest volatile consumer is China, which takes 5 million to 10 million metric tons annually. So we've traded off a large source of volatility for a smaller source of volatility.”

Cutting back on production in the United States is not a solution to the price problem, according to Scherr. “We don't want to lose production to anyone else. And U.S. farmers can grow more per acre on than ever before. We are producing record levels of grain, cotton and oilseeds in this country. And we use it all up every year.”

But U.S. growers can't continue to sell their products at unprofitable prices. “What we need are demand surges,” Scherr said. “But demand surges don't come out of the blue. Demand evolves. It doesn't change overnight.”

Scherr says demand surges typically come from a supply accident somewhere around the world. But these events don't happen with regularity, especially recently. Many producers recall 1996, when China didn't produce enough corn to export, “and all of a sudden we made up 10 million to 13 million tons of corn that China used to give to Asia,” Scherr said.

One solution is to add more people to the U.S. economy, and thereby pump up our domestic use. “Our society is made up of about 275 million people and 95 million households. Over the next 10 years, we will grow to about 300 million people and 100 million households. That's anemic growth, not enough to sustain the growth of our economy, whether it's our agricultural economy or anything else.

“If you don't have population growth and you can't export your products, you become stagnant with nowhere to go, like Japan.”

Scherr suggests that the United States develop an immigration policy to “strategically fill this country with highly productive, highly creative people that will earn money and spend money and be the foundation for agriculture.”

Scherr's solution, which he spoke about during the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show recently, makes sense, but here's another idea offered by an audience member in attendance — reduce the tax burden on young people in the United States to encourage them to have bigger families. Scherr agreed it was a good idea. And it certainly would be a lot more fun.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.

Recess delays work on farm bill

Leaders of a House-Senate conference committee simply “ran out of time” in their attempts to agree on a farm bill conference report before Congress departed for its two-week Easter-Passover recess March 22.

Late on March 19, Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the conference committee, and the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees issued a statement saying they had reached an agreement on a framework for speeding up the farm bill negotiations.

But they also announced they would not complete work on the farm bill conference report until Congress returns to work the week of April 9.

The statement followed a day in which the leaders postponed meetings that were to have taken place at 9 a.m., and then at 2 p.m., while they reportedly tried to work out an agreement on spending levels for the farm bill. The statement said:

“Farm bill negotiators today struck agreement on the needed framework to speed negotiations for early April completion of the House-Senate Conference Report.

“This framework allows for incorporating the many policy initiatives within the overall $73.5 billion agreed-upon 10-year farm bill budget. Members of Congress on the Conference Committee expect to be positioned to make the final farm bill decisions in public meetings of the conference the week of April 9.”

The development was another blow to farmers' hopes that committee members would at least complete a conference report before the recess and help remove the uncertainty that has clouded the farm financial outlook since last December. “We're a little more desperate,” said an Arkansas farmer on learning of the latest delay in passing a new farm bill. “It's time to plant, but there is no money, there is no farm bill and nobody will loan any money until there is a farm bill.”

“We just simply ran out of time,” said an aide to one of the conference committee members. “We thought we had an agreement over the preceding weekend, but we ran into some unanticipated problems with the Senate side and it fell apart.”

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a statement that USDA could still implement a new farm bill for the 2002 season if Congress will act in early April.

“USDA stands ready to implement a new farm bill this year, and our team has been working on implementation measures during the last few months,” she said. “However, each week that passes makes this formidable task ever more challenging.”

Veneman said the administration was pleased with reports that the conference committee leaders had agreed to a basic framework for farm bill spending that adheres to the $73.5 billion in additional funding Congress had allocated for agriculture in its 10-year budget resolution.

Congressional sources said the new framework provides $48.6 billion for commodity programs, $17.1 billion for conservation, $6.4 billion to restore food stamps to aliens living in the United States and $3.3 billion for research, energy, credit and other programs.

But conference committee members still have to reconcile the differences in spending formulas in the House and Senate bill, including the $6.1 billion overrun that was discovered in the Senate-passed bill after its initial scoring.

Despite the remaining hurdles that must be cleared, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle noted that the agreement “puts us one step closer to enacting a bill that corrects the problems in the 1996 bill.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.

Dryland corn susceptible to aflatoxin

Last year, the concern was growers farming cotton for insurance. This year, it appears dryland corn has taken cotton's place. And what has many farmers on edge isn't the possible insurance payouts but the potential for aflatoxin.

Delta Farm Press has recently fielded calls from Arkansas farmers concerned about “insurance dryland corn.” The fear these farmers cite is that their irrigated corn crops will pay a heavy price if aflatoxin shows up in dryland corn.

“Some farmers around here have bought dryland corn insurance. I'm not sure who or what the signee numbers are,” said an Extension agent in east Arkansas.

“There's a lot of dryland corn planted in the United States, just not a lot in the South. The program is available. Farmers are in dire straits, markets aren't looking too spiffy, and this program may offer some kind of help. Everything is bleak in the ag world, and you can understand why some farmers are taking the insurance,” said the agent.

Steve Rodery, an Extension agent in Crittenden County, Ark., says his area hasn't had a lot of dryland corn lately. “But in the early 1990s, we had some guys growing it and getting 110 to 120-plus bushel crops. It is risky, though, and the threat of aflatoxin is certainly higher if you aren't irrigating. That's a concern and once it's known that affected corn is coming out of a certain area, the situation snowballs.”

The Arkansas Extension system doesn't recommend growing dryland corn, says William Johnson, Arkansas Extension corn specialist.

“If you look at budgets, I'm sure you can certainly cut expenses drastically by growing corn dryland. Theoretically, you can plant some Roundup Ready corn, spray it once and call it a day. But that just isn't a good idea.

“In 1998, what dryland corn we had was totally destroyed by aflatoxin. In turn, that destroyed the marketing capacity of all the irrigated corn. Once aflatoxin is found, it's just assumed that the entire corn crop in an area, regardless of how it was grown, is tainted.

“In 1998, a lot of people who got into corn production didn't understand the implications of aflatoxin. We kept telling farmers that aflatoxin was serious and potentially devastating,” says Johnson.

If a grower plants good, Southern hybrids — hybrids that have good ear tip coverage — that he manages well, then aflatoxin is a minor problem, says Johnson. But if a grower plants corn dryland and doesn't manage it intensively, the crop is “infinitely” more likely to fail.

“Corn is like a pretty girl: if you don't take care of her, she'll leave you,” says Johnson.

Insurance farming isn't as big a deal when you're talking about soybeans or cotton, says Johnson.

“Farmers who aren't just after insurance may get upset, but they know it's not going to affect them — at least short term. But when it comes to corn, if you have a crop that's aflatoxin-tainted, the radar goes up at the elevators and everyone gets sucked in.

“I've gotten calls from farmers worried about this. They're not really worried about neighboring farmers getting insurance money. They're worried about what this means for their crops' marketing potential.”

How much dryland corn is going in? Johnson is hearing everything from just a few fields of corn to thousands and thousands of acres.

“I certainly hope it's on just a few acres. What's good about this is it's made some people think about the possibilities. Hopefully this will head off any problems. We don't want to get to the place where no one will take Arkansas or Delta corn.

“I speak with Arkansas farmers regularly who tell me how corn has helped keep them in business. I hear that all the time. We don't want that to go away,” says Johnson.

A Delta-based economist says there are solid reasons to keep an eye on the situation. “If you give the buyers a justification to hammer prices, they'll take it. The farmers planning to grow a legitimate crop could have a legitimate beef here. We'll have to wait and see,” says the economist.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.

Secretary Veneman says: President supports House bill funding

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman says the Bush administration is not backing away from its position that farm program spending must remain within the limits of the fiscal 2002 budget resolution.

The secretary's statement in a letter to Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the House-Senate farm bill conference committee, came after the Congressional Budget Office confirmed that it had underestimated the potential cost of the Senate farm bill by $6.3 billion.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and principal author of the Senate farm bill, has asked the House and Senate Budget Committees to increase the 2003 farm bill's additional funding for farm programs to $79.5 to cover the higher cost of the Senate bill, S-1731.

“The administration believes that the new farm bill must honor the limits of the Congressional Budget Resolution,” Veneman said. “Consistent with this Resolution, Congress should not pass a farm bill that exceeds $73.5 billion (in additional funding).”

Repeating President Bush's earlier statement that he wants a true, 10-year farm bill, Veneman said the administration continues to object to the manner in which the Senate bill allocates its funding.

“The Senate-passed bill frontloads the 10-year funding into the first five years, placing the future of farm programs in jeopardy for the second five years,” she said. “The Senate bill also sharply reduces or terminates funding for roughly 15 rural, conservation and commodity programs after 2006 in order to compensate for this ill-advised frontloading.

“We will strongly oppose any frontloaded farm bill that allocates more than $36.8 billion in the first five years.”

She said the administration also supports:

  • A farm bill that helps farmers without encouraging overproduction. “The administration continues to support marketing loan rates — an existing counter-cyclical program — that are equivalent to those contained in the House bill,” Veneman said.
  • A strong, reliable safety net. “The House bill's increased funding for fixed decoupled payments ensures farmers a consistent, predictable income safety net while maintaining market-oriented planting flexibility.”
  • Additional risk management tools to help non-program crop producers and farm savings accounts to complement traditional farm support programs. “We urge the expansion of the Senate's farm savings account pilot program in order to provide a broader base of assistance without causing planting and marketing distortions,” she noted.
  • A farm bill that promotes increased trade. “We have strongly urged that the new farm bill must support trade and be consistent with our international obligations,” Veneman said. “The House bill's fixed decoupled payments are “green box” and meet our trade obligations, while Senate provisions increase the likelihood of U.S. non-compliance.
  • Continuation of existing laws regulating the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. “We oppose repeal of the prohibition on private financing by U.S. persons of sales of agricultural commodities to Cuba.”
  • Opposition to country of origin labeling. “Provisions in both bills potentially violate international trade agreements, raise costs for consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and does nothing for food safety,” the secretary said.
  • A strong conservation title that bolsters working land stewardship, supplements farmers' and ranchers' income, improves water quality, provides wildlife habitat, conserves water and protects open space. “We have made a particular commitment to conservation programs for working lands, such as EQIP and a new Grasslands Reserve Program,” she said. “We also support growth in established conservation programs such as CRP, WRP, FPP and WHIP.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.

Senator introduces assistance legislation

Saying there is no excuse for the current farm bill situation, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas introduced economic assistance legislation that could help remove some of this spring's uncertainty for farmers if no farm bill is forthcoming.

Roberts' bill would provide $7.35 billion in Agricultural Market Transition Act (AMTA) payments — about $2 billion more than last year's assistance package — if Congress does not finish a new farm bill in time for it to apply to the 2002 crops, he said in announcing the legislation.

The action came after House-Senate conference committee leaders announced that they would not complete a compromise farm bill before Congress left for its Easter-Passover recess. Instead, they said, conferees would return to work on the farm bill the week of April 9.

Roberts, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the bill would help protect farmers through the current crop year — whether Congress acts on a new farm bill this spring or not.

“Most importantly, it allows our nation's farmers and their bankers to plan their investments through 2002,” Roberts said. “Timing has become critical. Even if new farm legislation were passed shortly after Congress returns from the Easter recess, it would be too late to implement before late summer. That would be devastating for producers.”

The senator said his legislation is based on formulas used to calculate the 2000 AMTA payment, and thus could be implemented more easily by USDA. The year 2000 date was selected because it results in higher payments than the 2001 and 2002 AMTA formulas and the 2001 Market Loss Assistance (MLA) formula.

“American farmers know there is no excuse for the current farm bill situation in Congress,” he said. “The Senate, in passing a seriously flawed, partisan bill, has slowed the process and delayed much-needed assistance from reaching producers.

“My legislation is designed to bridge the gap and protect farmers if a new farm bill can not be passed by Congress for the 2002 crop.”

Roberts and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, both Republicans, introduced legislation that would have provided significantly higher AMTA payments for program crops and soybeans during the Senate's debate on the new farm bill in December. But the proposal was rejected in favor of the Daschle-Harkin bill that passed the Senate Feb. 13.

The latter contains higher loan rates and more spending for conservation programs. Sources have said resolving the difference in loan rates between the Senate and House bills was one of the stumbling blocks that caused the conferees to delay completion of the farm bill conference report.

Roberts said the new legislation he introduced on March 20 does not mean that the farm bill is dead for 2002.

“Quite the contrary, staff of the conferees have been instructed to continue working over the recess period in the hope that a bill can be completed shortly after Easter,” the senator said.

“But having been involved in numerous farm bills, I know that these conferences can become quite contentious and bog down,” said Roberts, who led the House conference committee members who wrote the 1996 farm bill. “Furthermore, it is not going to be easy to implement this bill, not to mention the wisdom of simply pushing through a bill just so we can say it applies to the 2002 crop.

“That may be easy to do this year, but it may be difficult to live under the problems we could create for the next five or six years.”

Roberts also noted that many farmers in the South have begun spring planting and that producers across the nation will be in their fields soon.

Conference committee leaders did announce a framework agreement that spells out spending levels for the proposed farm bill.

Most farm organizations hailed the agreement as an important step in resolving the farm bill deadlock.

Here are the major provisions of the legislation introduced by Sen. Roberts:

  • Market Loss Assistance (MLA) distributed through the AMTA payment formula with payments equal to the 2000 AMTA payment level. According to USDA, the 2000 AMTA payment for each crop was:

    • Wheat 58.8 cents/bushel
    • Corn 33.4 cents/bushel
    • Sorghum 40 cents/bushel
    • Barley 25.1 cents/bushel
    • Cotton 7.33 cents/pound
    • Rice $2.60/hundredweight
    • Oats 2.8 cents/bushel

    This is the payment rate that producers would receive based upon the number of bushels they receive payments on under their existing AMTA contracts.

  • Oilseed payments: $466 million for direct payments to producers. This should be a payment of approximately 14 cents/bushel.

  • Peanuts: $455.21 million for direct payments to producers.

  • Honey: $93 million to provide recourse loans to producers for 2002.

  • Wool and mohair: $16.94 million in direct payments.

  • Cottonseed assistance: $93 million.

  • Specialty crops: $186 million for commodity purchases. No less than $55 million must be used for school lunch program purchases.

  • Continuation of LDP eligibility for crops harvested on non-AMTA acres in 2002.

  • LDP graze-out for wheat, barley, and oats on the 2002 crop.

  • Extension of the dairy price support program through Dec. 31, 2002.

  • Pulse crops: $20 million for direct payments.

  • Tobacco: $100 million for direct payments.

  • CRP technical assistance: $44 million in 2002.

  • WRP: $200 million for the enrollment of additional acres in 2002.

  • EQIP: $300 million in additional funds for 2002.

  • Farmland Protection Program: $161 million in additional funds.

  • Livestock Feed Assistance Program: $500 million for payments to producers for losses suffered in 2001 and 2002.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.

Rains delay Mississippi corn planting

Although admittedly frustrating, the deluge of early spring rains shouldn't throw Mississippi corn producers into a panic quite yet.

“We're at a dead halt right now, with about 10 percent of the state's corn crop in the ground. There was a substantial amount of corn planted in the southern Delta the first week of March, but in the two-week period since then the rainfall has prevented any further planting,” says Extension corn specialist Erick Larson at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

When the ground does dry up enough to get a tractor back in the field, Larson says, there likely will be ample time to plant the state's 2002 corn crop. The optimum planting dates for the south Delta last until April 10. Mid-Delta growers can safely plant until about April 20, and the optimum planting dates run through April 25 for corn growers in the north Delta — north of Bolivar County,” he says.

In Mississippi, state corn planting guidelines call for a soil temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit at a 2-inch depth, or 50 degrees Fahrenheit at a soil depth of 6 inches. Corn produces its highest yields when planted within four to five weeks after the soil temperature is warm enough for germination, the guidelines state.

“Extraordinarily early planting enhances mid-season maturity very little because corn growth rate is correlated to temperature and heat unit accumulation is historically very low during early March,” says Larson. “Planting before the soil is warm enough for germination greatly increases the potential for stand failure.”

Corn germination so far in 2002 has been extremely slow, according to Larson, due to low soil temperatures. “Soil temperatures remained below our minimum for corn germination through the first week of March,” he says.

Because Mid-South corn growers encounter wet weather around planting time almost every year, most Delta growers incorporate some type of stale seedbed into their production systems.

“Corn tillage systems in Mississippi, generally exclude springtime tillage, because wet soil conditions typically limit field work,” Larson says. “Thus producers plant as soon as dry condition prevail, rather than wasting this precious time preparing seedbeds with tillage.”

In years like 2002, saturated soil conditions can cause stand failures because of seed rot or seedlings drowning out.

The most significant thing a grower can do to prevent some of the problems associated with wet conditions is to plant on raised beds, Larson says. However, he says, “Because that is a fairly intensive tillage practice, and time is limited at this point, it is unlikely producers could prepare raised beds and still plant in a timely manner this spring.”

For those growers planting Bt corn in 2002, Larson reminds them of the refuge requirements which mandate they plant no more than 50 percent of their acreage in Bt hybrids containing YieldGuard. In all cotton-growing areas, the non-Bt refuge acreage must be planted within one-half mile of the Bt corn.

“Bt corn prevents damage from Southwestern and European corn borers, and we haven't had a significant problem with those pests since 1998. Because of that, the percentage of acreage planted to Bt hybrids in Mississippi hasn't changed significantly in the past four years,” he says. “In addition, one of the things limiting Bt use is the expense of the technology. Bt corn adds $8 to $10 per acre to your corn production system expenses, and if the pest isn't a significant problem you might not recover that input cost.”

Overall, corn acreage in Mississippi is predicted to be up significantly in 2002. Mississippi farmers planted 400,000 acres of corn in 2001, and most estimates are that figure will be near 600,000 acres this year. That's a 40 to 50 percent increase in acreage, and it's primarily coming out of cotton.

In the last 20 years, the average corn yield for the state of Mississippi has gone from 62 bushels per acre to 130 bushels per acre in 2001. “Our corn yields are increasing more rapidly than any other crop planted in the state. We have more than doubled our corn yield in the past 20 years, and we've improved our state average yield by more than 11 percent in just the last year,” Larson says.

“Production practices and inputs are changing fairly rapidly because of new technology like enhanced hybrids and other inputs, but we are also changing some of our management practices like fertility levels and plant populations to keep up with this increased yield potential,” he says.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.

CARA's conservation goals just government land grab?

Congress' inaction on the new farm bill has been much on everyone's mind the past many weeks, but that isn't the only thing going on in Washington that can affect farming.

CARA, for example. You know about CARA?

The Condemnation and Relocation Act, HR 701, it's formally known, and while the title itself is nebulous enough, there is concern it would bring millions more acres of privately-owned land under government control, would have an adverse impact on the tax base of many rural areas, and would funnel millions of “pork” dollars to the home states of several powerful lawmakers.

It also includes a conservation tax credit provision, which opponents say would “vastly increase the ability of the government and non-profit land trusts to grab land.” It would result in massive government land acquisition, according to one property rights advocate, and “is just another nail in the coffin of private property owners in rural America.”

The tax credit, part of the Bush budget proposal, would provide a 50 percent capital gains tax break on any land sold to the government or to land trust organizations, and would, the administration says, constitute a “cost-effective, non-regulatory, market-based approach to conservation.”

Opponents say, however, it favors environmental groups over the private sector and will only put more property in government hands. (Uncle Sam now owns nearly 640 million acres in North America, and CARA would spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year acquiring more private lands — this despite a Congressional Budget Office recommendation of a 10-year moratorium on acquisition of new federal lands by the Interior and Agriculture departments.)

“How much is enough land for the government to own?” asked Henry Lamb, vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization of Tennessee. “I've tried for years, but have never found anyone in the federal government to answer that question.”

Some say the conservation tax credit “gives an unprecedented comparative advantage for government and non-profit agencies over the private sector.”

It cuts the capital gains tax by half for land sales to non-profit land trusts and federal/state governments. Many land trust organizations then turn around and sell some of their holdings to the federal government — in effect, a taxpayer subsidy of those groups. Land owned by the government is also land that's off the tax rolls; it generates no revenues for rural counties and municipalities (CARA would replace only a small portion of lost revenues).

Sportsmen groups say CARA is anti-hunting, anti-recreational, because much of the land under government control is increasingly being restricted either in access or uses — described by the Wall Street Journal as “rural cleansing.” The goal of the Sierra Club and many environmental groups, the publication said, “is no longer to protect nature, it's to expunge humans from the countryside” by suing or lobbying the government into declaring rural areas off-limits to people who live and work there.”

Finally, the bill contains hundreds of millions of pork dollars for a host of things unrelated to conservation — another reason it has received significant support by several key congressmen.

EWG adds more grist to propaganda mill

But two speeches by Michigan Congressman Nick Smith calling the Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland and other farmer-owned cooperatives “mega-farming operations” proved to be the last straw for Bell, a former undersecretary of agriculture and Indiana native.

Smith referenced the payments made to Riceland in statements on the floor of the House of Representatives on Feb. 26 and March 6. In them, he claimed Riceland and the other coops were recipientsof massive amounts of taxpayer dollars.

“These are mega-farm operations, these are huge landowners,” said the congressman, noting that the operations were not 400- or 500-acre farms, but 40,000 to 80,000-acre farms.

Smith’s comments were typical of the wildly inaccurate and misleading statements that have been made in both Houses of Congress and in the national media since the Environmental Working Group (EWG) obtained farm payment records from USDA through the Freedom of Information Act and put them on the World Wide Web.

Farm organizations were bracing themselves for another round of such statements after the EWG updated its Web site with payment records from 2001 on March 27.

After Smith’s second speech on March 6, Bell wrote the congressman, pointing out that Riceland Foods, Inc., which markets rice, soybeans and wheat grown by its 9,000 grower-members, has no farming operations.

He noted that Riceland owns 243 acres of farmland adjacent to its existing processing facilities in Stuttgart that eventually will be used for new processing and storage facilities, but it receives no government farm payments on the land that is rented to a grower-member.

One reason for the confusion in the farm bill debate regarding payment limits, he said, is that people do not understand the marketing pools used by cooperatives in the South, particularly those operated by rice and cotton cooperatives.

“Under the marketing pool concept, members deliver their crops to the cooperative where a professional staff markets them. Earnings and expenses are shared among pool participants on a per unit basis of crops delivered,” Bell said.

Bell noted that Riceland and other cooperatives receive marketing loan benefits from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) on behalf of the individual members participating in the marketing pools.

“These funds are distributed to individual members according to their deliveries to the cooperative,” Bell said. “The cooperative tracks marketing loan assistance payments due each individual member by using the payment limits information provided by the USDA for individual members.”

Bell said that marketing cooperatives handling CCC benefits for their members is not a new development. “The process has been in existence for probably more than 50 years,” he said.

In response to media queries, a spokesman made no bones about the fact that the EWG had timed its update of the 2001 payment information to have maximum impact on members of the House-Senate conference committee negotiating a new farm bill.

“Certainly, we think it can have a large effect,” said Susanne Fleek, director of government relations for the EWG,” referring to the deliberations conferees will have on the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment when Congress returns from its April 9.

To farm organizations’ chagrin, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has written a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee advising them that he will re-introduce the payment limit amendment that he helped write if it is dropped from the farm bill conference committee report.

Dorgan advised Sens. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman, and Richard Lugar, the ranking member, that their first priority should be to “get a good farm bill in time for this year’s crops” but that they should also make every effort to ensure that they maintain meaningful payment limits in the new farm bill.

“A farm program needs public support in order to exist,” said Dorgan, “And lately this critical support has been declining due in part to the impression that most of the money is going to the largest corporate farms.”

Organizations such as the National Cotton Council have been trying to counteract such statements, noting that Dorgan’s comments and the amendment specifically are based on “incomplete and highly misleading” reports by the Environmental Working Group.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.