September 1, 2008
Farm Bill Good for Utah, Hatch Says
By Stephen Speckman Deseret News
Except for an overridden veto by President Bush, the $290 billion farm bill quietly passed through Congress this past summer, with funds expected to last for five years.
If you're like most people, the news didn't become dinner table fodder.
"It's a piece of legislation that not that many people know a lot about, and it's almost really a misnomer in the sense that it's about a lot more than farming," Bush's Natural Resources and Environment under secretary Mark Rey said in an interview.
Rey was in Salt Lake City Thursday to address a national convention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. He took time out to explain the farm bill.
Rey works for the USDA directing programs administered by the U.S. Forest Service and NRCS. He helps oversee nearly 200 million acres of national forest and grasslands, along with private forestry and agriculture-related conservation programs. He also had a hand in developing the latest farm bill, which was first authorized in 1949 and was last passed in 2002.
It helps to understand Rey's job when trying to figure out how the bill impacts Utah, where three congressmen gave it a thumbs down. Out of Utah's five Washington lawmakers, Sen. Orrin Hatch was the only one to vote in favor of the bill, with Sen. Bob Bennett and Reps. Chris Cannon and Jim Matheson in opposition -- Rep. Rob Bishop did not vote.
Rey said Bush vetoed it because of "budget gimmicks," noting he was the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to veto a farm bill - - that was back when Ezra Taft Benson was secretary of agriculture, before coming to Utah to be president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It was a difficult decision, but I voted for the bill because it included several important programs that will benefit Utahns," Hatch said in an e-mail response to questions. "For instance, it included a provision I advocated that addresses the shipment of state- inspected meat, one that allows ... state-inspected meat products to be sold across state lines."
Hatch said he also supported the bill, which he said received strong backing from many Utah farmers and agricultural groups, because of a fund that helps Utah farmers recover losses after drought and wildfires. He also liked the bill's nutrition and conservation programs.
"There was enough good in the farm bill for Utah to garner my support," Hatch said.
Critics of the bill said it pays farmers to merely keep land idle, which Rey said misses the point. He said farmers who qualify will be paid to take acres of "marginal" production off-line as, for example, a means of benefiting wildlife habitat.
Depending on where you live, you may have heard of the 2008 Farm Bill because it benefited a project or program in your state that you could actually put a number to. For example, about $250 million will come from the 2008 Farm Bill for a $500 million, 300,000-acre conservation land deal in Montana that creates a protected environment for threatened and endangered animals. Good for critters in Montana.
Or the bill didn't even register because its massive breadth and nuances weren't vetted in the media to see how it impacts individual states. But a little explanation can go a long way.
In a nutshell, it's the main bill that provides the authority, and a lot of money, for a broad cross-section of USDA's programs, Rey explained. He said it's like the highway bill, in that it comes with its own mandatory money that isn't dependent on the annual appropriations process.
"To be certain, it's about conservation," Rey said about the bill. "It's about renewable energy and biofuels. It's about food assistance for people in lower income circumstances.
"It's the largest piece of conservation legislation that's typically considered in Congress," he added. But it all comes down in a "cooperative and quiet fashion," which doesn't sell newspapers, Rey said.
Which is why most Utahns probably don't know that the farm bill just for fiscal year 2008 funds has pumped more than $25 million into Utah for financial and technical assistance that directly impacts farmers. Millions more in FY2008 have been spent on Utah programs that affect groundwater ($1.4 million), conservation security ($3.9 million), agricultural management ($700,000), farm and ranch lands protection ($10 million) and soils ($1.1 million).
Money for the bill's new version will get divvied up with passage of the next agriculture appropriations bill.
The 2008 incarnation of the farm bill will emphasize in Utah and the West conservation programs like the environmental quality incentive program.
"That program is probably more important in Utah than any other in the farm bill," Rey said.
It will mean money for range management, dealing with livestock waste, water improvement, fencing to keep grazing cattle away from streams and dealing with invasive species such as cheatgrass, which ultimately feed wildfires instead of livestock.
Another perk for a particular population in Utah -- and a large one at that -- is an open lands feature of the bill that allows the government to buy conservation easements from private land owners interested less in the lucrative draw of developing their property and more in keeping it accessible to people who like to fish and hunt or preserving land in perpetuity.
"That was a very big thing for the hook and bullet community," Rey said.
One example of the type of people who may take advantage of that part of the bill may be the likes of sheep rancher Allan Smith, who last year finished a conservation easement deal in Duchesne County that sets aside 5,713 acres of his land to forever benefit critical wildlife habitat and the hunting community. Federal funds for the easement purchase came via the 2002 Farm Bill's Grassland Reserve Program.
"For my father and grandfather both ... being environmentally correct was their main thing," Smith told the Deseret News last November. "They were very adamant about taking care of the land. Leave the land better than you received it, that's probably the general philosophy."
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