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Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Raleigh News & amp; Observer: President Bush understandably gave in to higher farm spending by the U.S. House. Congress, after all, has given him much of what he's asked for to fight terrorism. The administration originally had asked the House to delay increases that set agriculture spending at $171 billion over 10 years, largely because it worried about committing so much money while a war on terror was ramping up.
Still, two progressive aspects of farm legislation originally pushed by Bush ought not be surrendered. And since the Senate begins work this week on its version of the bill, the president has a chance of having them put back.
The House ignored the administration's sensible call for a shift in farm subsidy policies to focus federal payments more on small farmers and less on big corporate farms. The House also refused to raise financial incentives for farmers who clean up the environment through measures such as keeping fertilizers, pesticides and animal wastes from reaching the nation's waterways.
Federal subsidies favor commodities dominated by giant companies, such as corn and wheat. Farming across the board is hurting, but the downturn has a harsher impact on small farmers who tend to grow crops that aren't subsidized. And thousands of families are forced from the land and their farming heritage because they can't afford to continue. Earlier this month the House defeated a proposal that would have shifted 15 percent of subsidies to smaller farmers, a modest piece of the pie but one that could make a big difference for family farms.
Conservation programs: That same amendment would have increased funding for several effective conservation programs, including one that keeps animal wastes and farm chemicals out of streams and rivers and another that helps keep farms from being swallowed by urban development. Conservation spending as a percentage of direct aid to farmers sank from 26 percent in 1996 to 6 percent in 2000.
A broad range of American taxpayers benefits when the government finances programs to improve the environment. City dwellers, for instance, gain open space and cleaner drinking water. All of North Carolina, with its bulging urban regions, would advance in its drive to save a million acres from development if Congress increased conservation spending. President Bush gave his share of ground on the farm bill's funding level. It's in the nation's all-around interest that he not give ground on making it fair and progressive.