Farm Bill, With MRLS Provisions, Clears Committee

By Philip Brasher
Associated Press

Democrats forced a new farm bill through a Senate committee Thursday after giving Southern senators more money for big farms and adding a dairy program that could raise retail milk prices. Republicans said the spending will stimulate price-depressing surpluses of subsidized crops and may break the budget.

Meanwhile, provisions for loans that would aid farmers impacted by mare reproductive loss syndrome are included in the bill that cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Chip Tuttle, a spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

If the measure becomes law, it would make low-interest loans available for eligible horse farmers affected by MRLS (a 30% loss of foals in mares they own or board).

The committee approved the bill's subsidy section 12-9 with the support of one Republican, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is up for re-election next year in a major agricultural state. The panel rejected a Republican alternative backed by the Bush administration.

Committee chairman Tom Harkin, a fierce critic of the Republican "Freedom to Farm" policy enacted five years ago, called the Senate bill a "nudge" to existing subsidy programs. "We're not going to make any sharp turns. We have to keep our farmers going," the Iowa Democrat said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas., said the bill was a "step back to the past." Increases in subsidy rates are bound to encourage overproduction, he said.

The legislation could go to the Senate floor the week after Thanksgiving. It faces a series of amendments there, including one that would shift billions in crop subsidies into conservation programs.

The legislation would cost $174 billion over 10 years, by Harkin's estimate, $4 billion more than a farm bill passed by the House last month. Both bills would continue to direct the bulk of subsidies to farmers who grow wheat, corn, cotton, rice and soybeans and add new crops such as peanuts.

The Senate bill has more spending for conservation programs and food stamps.

In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman didn't comment on the bill but said the administration is "committed to good, sound agriculture policy that benefits a broad range" of farms.

The Senate committee narrowly approved an amendment by Sen. Paul Wellstone, R-Minn., that would require meat, lamb and produce to be labeled with the country of origin. U.S. farmers believe the labels would discourage consumption of imported food.