WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday narrowly rejected a proposal that supporters said would have benefited smaller farmers like those in Maryland by shifting funds in the $170 billion farm bill from subsidies to conservation incentives.
The amendment to the 10-year bill would have shifted almost $2 billion a year out of subsidies that go mostly to large farms in the Midwest and toward conservation programs. Supporters said the extra conservation money would go to more farmers in more regions of the country.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, was a leading sponsor of the failed amendment, which he said would help protect family farms from development pressures, while preserving the health of the Chesapeake Bay by encouraging environmentally friendly farming.
“This is about people who have tilled the land in Maryland for 300 years,” Gilchrest said at a news conference on the measure earlier this week.
The failed amendment also called for the creation of “conservation corridors” around the country that would have encouraged farmers to take a regional approach to environmental protection.
Gilchrest withdrew a separate amendment to create a local conservation corridor, after getting assurances from the bill’s supporters late Thursday evening that they would back a pilot program for such a corridor on the Delmarva peninsula.
The failed bipartisan amendment — sponsored by Gilchrest and Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and John Dingell, D-Mich. — would have doubled conservation funding over the amount in the bill passed by the Agriculture Committee. Boehlert said the amendment would have increased agriculture funding to 34 states.
“Every state and virtually ever congressional district will get more money,” Kind said.
But Agriculture Committee members argued that their bill already increases conservation funding by about 80 percent. Shifting more money from subsidy payments to conservation programs would have cut too deeply into the subsidy programs, what they called the farmers’ “safety net” funding.
Some farm groups agreed. The Maryland Farm Bureau said last month that those “safety payments” are vital to farmers and that the Gilchrest-Kind amendment would only have endangered those payments while creating bureaucratic headaches for farmers seeking conservation payments.
The Gilchrest-Kind proposal failed on a 226-200 vote after hours of debate. Debate on the bill continued late into the evening, with a vote expected Friday.
“Informed rejection of the amendment affirms the United States Congress’ solid support and unwavering understanding of the hard work by farmers day in and day out,” said Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, and chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
The amendment failed even though the Bush administration said it wanted a farm bill that was more focused on conservation efforts. The White House had urged the House on Tuesday to delay a vote on the farm bill until a policy could be crafted that, among other things, better protects the environment.
The current farm legislation expires next year.
Gilchrest said his amendment would have met the guidelines set two weeks ago by the Bush administration.