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Proposed federal farm bill a mixed bag for Md. farmers

The Baltimore Sun

The current working version of the federal farm bill is shaping up as a mixed bag for Maryland farmers.

"There are some small net gains for Maryland farmers," said Bruce Gardner, a professor at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "But when it comes to direct payments for commodities, the big bucks still go to farmers in other parts of the country."

In the past, Gardner and other state agriculture officials have argued that Maryland did not get its fair share from previous federal farm bills. While Maryland farms accounted for 0.8 percent of the country's $240 million in farms sales in 2006, they received only one-half of 1 percent of the $20 billion paid out in federal support funds.

The proposed new farm bill, which still needs to be reconciled by a House and Senate conference committee and could face the threat of a veto by President Bush, does nothing to correct that imbalance.

"Maryland gets a little more funding this year, but most of the crop-support payments go to states that grow cotton and rice, two commodities we don't have here," Gardner said.

Most of the new funding headed Maryland's way is for farm conservation programs. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill provide additional funding for conservation to help reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. But there is considerably more money in the House plan.

The Senate legislation would provide $165 million over five years in technical assistance for farmers to improve water quality in local streams and rivers and the bay, said John Surrick, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Under the House plan, funding to farmers to help pay for pollution controls would be $520 million over the five years.

"It is all new money, so we can't say the Senate plan is bad," Surrick said. "But our hope is that the conference committee will lean more toward the House version."

Operators of organic farms, which have been growing in number in Maryland and across the nation, stand to benefit from the bill, which will set farm policy for the next five years. The bill calls for funding for organic research, data collection and transition to organic production, as well as eliminating the crop insurance premium for organic producers, said Caren Wilcox, executive direction of the national Organic Trade Association.

Organic producers now pay a 5 percent surcharge for crop insurance. Yet in times of loss, the producers don't receive the higher organic crop price, but rather the lower conventional price.

The Senate bill would also provide $80 million over the life of the plan for organic agriculture research and university extension services.

"The Senate bill includes important steps to help strengthen the safety net for organic producers and manufacturers," Wilcox said.

Another provision of the Senate plan includes $22 million in new money to help farmers pay the cost of certifying their products as organic.

There are pros and cons in the proposed legislation for livestock farmers. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association applauds the provisions that would allow for expanded interstate shipment of state-inspected meat, but it dislikes a provision on a ban on packer ownership of cattle.

About 29 states - including Delaware and Virginia, but not Maryland - have state-inspected meat programs. Currently meat sales in states with inspection programs are limited to intrastate.

Under the Senate bill, farmers could broaden their market nationally if the state inspection regulations are comparable to federal rules.

"It would significantly broaden the market for livestock farmers and could mean lower prices for consumers," Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the cattlemen's association, said of the Senate plan.

In a move designed to limit the influence of meatpacking houses on beef market, the Senate legislation would impose a ban of the sale of cattle to a processor or packing house until 14 days before slaughter.

The cattlemen's association is opposed to the ban, arguing that there is no evidence of packers controlling the industry and that the relationship between ranchers and the processors is not the government's business.

Gardner said it is still too early to draw conclusions about the impact of the legislation, as the conference committee will not start its work until the end of the month. And uncertainty about where money for the new programs will come from has led to President Bush hinting that he might veto the bill, Gardner said.

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