House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas is opposed to the agreement announced earlier this week by farm, environmental and wildlife groups to link eligibility for crop-insurance premium subsidies to conservation compliance.
Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, told DTN off the House floor Wednesday that he has a philosophical problem with various lobby groups "tying strings to how farmers farm" and dictating terms to producers when the farm bill is supposed to be about raising food and fiber.
"My perspective has always been, very sincerely, if a farm bill is about raising food --- and I know 80% of it now is about making sure people have enough to eat, helping them buy their food --- but if it is about raising food, farmers should have the tools to raise the food and fiber," Lucas said. "And if you engage in whole series of things, such as you can't get crop insurance unless you plant in a certain way, on a certain day, in a certain direction, or you can't access a variety of other programs, then we aren't having a farm bill that helps farmers raise food and fiber, but we have a social tool here that's used to direct how farmers use their lives and conduct their business."
More than 30 farm and environmental groups came together earlier this week to announce they had reached an agreement for the Senate version of the farm bill to link conservation compliance to crop-insurance premium eligibility. In return, the Senate Agriculture Committee would eliminate a provision that would reduce premium subsidies for farmers who have more than $750,000 adjusted gross income.
Lucas said he is concerned about provisions such as the compliance agreement that would possibly reduce farm production right now.
"I'm more concerned about the overall equation of supply and demand," Lucas said. "We've had two horrible years, going on three years of drought in the Southwest United States." He added, "But we're in a circumstance where things like the Renewable Fuels Standard is driving planting decisions, which is pulling up the price of grain and causing people to do what's most economically viable for their property."
Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will meet to pass their own versions of the farm bill next week. The Senate Ag Committee will meet May 14 while the House Ag Committee will meet May 15. Lucas said his initial version of the bill, known as the chairman's mark, would be released by the end of this week, possibly as early as Thursday.
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Lucas said the House farm bill could come to the floor in June.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said the conservation compliance agreement could come up as an amendment in the committee meeting, particularly if so many groups back it, ranging from the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union to Ducks Unlimited and Audubon Society to the World Wildlife Fund. It's certainly more likely to be in the final bill once the House and Senate go to conference.
"I haven't seen the language, but I think what they have done is scaled back a little" from what the Senate passed last year, Peterson said.
On other conservation issues, Lucas said the House Agriculture Committee will lower cap on the Conservation Reserve Program down to 24 million acres, instead of the 25-million cap set by the committee last year. That is partly because CRP acreage has already declined, thus the cap must be lowered for the House Agriculture Committee to get credit for savings in the cost of the program. "We need to reflect the reality out there."
Most of the other conservation provisions will be the same as language set last year, which would consolidate programs and make it easier for farmers to enroll in those programs.
EPA Outreach Needs Work
You might have heard EPA officials were upset over an open letter by the Society of Environmental Journalists last month during Gina McCarthy's nomination hearing to be the agency's new administrator. SEJ had written, "The Obama administration has been anything but transparent in its dealings with reporters seeking information, interviews and clarification on a host of environmental, health and public lands issues. The EPA is one of the most closed, opaque agencies to the press."
EPA officials sat down with leaders from SEJ and tried to assure the group that EPA was going to work to improve outreach and communication with journalists.
And the letter went on with SEJ's complaints. For the record, I'm a member of SEJ, as well as the immediate past president of the North American Agricultural Journalists.
With that background in mind, on Wednesday I opted to sit in on the EPA's appropriations hearing before a House subcommittee, an affair that took a couple of hours. I felt obligated to follow up and ask EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe about the issues involving the release of information EPA collected on livestock operations to environmental groups. EPA released the information, which has raised significant questions about privacy concerns. More than 40 congressmen sent a letter asking EPA why it collected all this information from states and why the agency released it. From what I understand, the environmental groups have returned the data. Those included Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pew Charitable Trusts.
And yet, EPA released more data to the groups and once again sought to get the information back. It's fascinating because if a journalist sends a FOIA request to EPA it can take months or years to get any information at all.
The national Cattlemen's Beef Association has asked the EPA's Office of Inspector General to investigate. Livestock groups are seeking language in the farm bill text to keep EPA from releasing such data.
Amazingly, the issue did not come up at the hearing on Wednesday.
One issue that did come up was a $5 million budget request by EPA to improve its outreach to various groups. Subcommittee Chair Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, questioned the request as EPA is cutting water and infrastructure matching grants. Perciasepe said EPA needs to do a better job communicating to tribes, as well as rural America.
I waited patiently, and as the hearing ended, I approached Perciasepe and his entourage to ask if I could talk to him. He waved his hand with a wonderfully dismissive gesture and a communications person approached me and acted incredulous that I dare consider questioning the acting director.
So, I don't think anyone at SEJ should hold their breath. I also don't think EPA should count on getting that $5 million, either. As for me, I'm hoping someone holds oversight hearings with Perciasepe and McCarthy about the livestock records so we can get some response to why EPA seemed so willing to honor these FOIA requests.
I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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