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Breaking down the farm bill and what it offers

May 20, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the "Farm Bill" and sent it on to the Senate. The bill's price tag is pegged at $289 billion over five years; typically the Farm Bill is set for five-year terms.

When the average American looks at that figure, they think farmers are getting a huge handout, which, of course, is not true, but, then, you would expect me to say that.

As you can imagine, the bill has its share of pork - no pun intended. If a bill ever gets out of Congress without pet projects, I would expect snow would be in the forecast for Miami in July.

One project close to home, courtesy of senators from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, is $382 million for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Conservation Program. Since I am not quite sure if this is a new program or continued funding for an existing program, I cannot say if this will be money well spent.

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If it is continued funding for an existing program, I can say that program has a laudable plan, outlined as a regional partnership that works with farmers to improve agricultural practices and improve water quality within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

This project also reports great results, with more than 200,000 acres of riparian buffers, wetlands and erodible cropped fields having been enrolled in the six states. This effort contributed to achieving the 2010 Chesapeake Bay goal of 600 stream miles of trees in Maryland 10 years early. In addition to enhancing water quality, the new vegetation will also provide shelter, nesting areas and food for many species of wildlife.

Among other special provisions, Mitch McConnell included a tax break for horse owners that would benefit horse farms in his state of Kentucky. His office asserted that the provision, which ensures that all race horses are depreciated over three years for tax purposes, regardless of when the horses start training, did not qualify as an earmark because it would affect tens of thousands of taxpayers in nearly every state. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates this would cost $126 million over 10 years.

Max Baucus, D-Montana, got $1 million for a national sheep and goat industry improvement center. The bill authorizes $10 million a year for five years for a program backed by Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, that helps people in poor, rural areas find housing. It also authorizes funds for a drought mitigation center at the University of Nebraska, water systems for rural and native villages in Alaska and a congressional hunger center.

The Humane Society of the United States said it was supporting the farm bill because it has a provision, inserted by Senate Democratic Whip Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to curb the import of puppies for commercial sale from foreign puppy mills. The bill also strengthens the federal animal fighting law.

I, of course, got the above information from Associated Press wire stories, radio and TV as well as Web news outlets. If you think it is easy for the average person to get this information, you would be wrong. The Bill is 1,876 pages and is affectionately known as HR 2419 or the "Food and Energy Security Act of 2007." With an overwhelming number of lawyers serving in the Congress, you can imagine it is not an easy read. I doubt they left any legalese unused.

It should be noted, like or hate this bill, more than two-thirds of the first five years' total spending is devoted to nutrition and food stamps, which the bill renames the "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." Many people have no idea that the food stamp program is in the USDA budget and not in Health, Education and Welfare or some other department.

Regardless of your feeling toward government spending and the cost of food, you should be interested in food security. There are many people who think we can outsource our food production, just like we outsource tech support or automobile seats. When other countries control our food supply, food lines and prices will look like gas lines and prices.

Farmers need to be encouraged to grow food - and at a return that keeps them in business and not in the poor house. There is a grave misconception that high food prices mean farmers are getting rich. The rise in food prices are nearly all due to overseas demand and increased energy costs.

While crop prices are at an all-time high, so are fertilizer, fuel and seed prices, which mean farmers are handling more money but not keeping that much more of it. The general public will need to monitor how Congress treats our food supply. Europe has always taken care of its farmers because it had a generation that remembered what it was like to be hungry. Most Americans only know plenty and take our food supply for granted. I hope you are not one of them.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu.

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