It's crunch time for developing the successor to the 2002 US Farm Bill, set to expire Sept. 30, 2007. Many of the ingredients that may be blended into the 2007 Farm Bill are now becoming public.
Among many issues linked in some way to the environment beat that are affected directly or indirectly by a Farm Bill are renewable energy; air quality; surface-water, groundwater, and drinking water quality; wetlands; wildlife conservation; invasive species; erosion; nutrient runoff; "dead zones;" pesticide contamination; organic farming; local production; food contamination; food quality; obesity; and international trade.
Much of the groundwork for a new Farm Bill has been laid during the past two years. The first official culmination of those efforts was unveiled Jan. 31, 2007, with the release of a draft Farm Bill  by US Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. Home page for the Farm Bill. 
Keep in mind that the final Farm Bill, which will be a compromise between upcoming proposals by the US House and Senate, may be vastly different from the initial USDA proposal. That's what happened with the 2002 version, says Allen Hance  (202-464-4015), spokesman for the Farm and Food Policy Project, an umbrella group supported or endorsed by more than 350 groups interested in issues such as the environment, social policy, public health, nutrition, hunger, and poverty. Their site  includes a state-by-state listing of endorsing groups.
Members of this coalition have found a number of positive aspects in the initial USDA proposal. They say it reforms the 2002 Farm Bill in several ways, with more emphasis on some conservation measures, revised crop subsidy policies, and increased attention to issues such as nutrition and public health.
But they say some of the touted improvements in subsidy reform are undermined by other measures that end up leaving the subsidies in the same old hands. They also say that many of the changes would likely damage some conservation efforts. For instance, they say that large animal feedlots would be the beneficiaries of more public funding, and that significant air and water contamination issues would remain. For position papers covering analysis on dozens of specific aspects, contact the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Ferd Hoefner,  202-547-5754;National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. 
For the perspective of just one of many environmental groups following the debate, see Environmental Defense's Jan. 31, 2007, overview. 
For a taste of some points of view on a variety of related environmental, social, and economic issues, see the National Catholic Rural Life Conference's statement, "Seeking Balance in US Farm & Food Policy." 
The USDA's initial package met with some sharp criticism from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which said in a March 2, 2007, press release  that it is "strenuously opposed" to the agency's proposed subsidy policy, which would cut out farmers who make more than $200,000 in adjusted gross income.
By the agency's calculation,  those wealthiest farmers represent only about 1-2% of all current subsidy recipients, but the Farm Bureau does not want them to lose the approximately $400 million they have been receiving.
For the Heritage Foundation's perspective on the current subsidies, including comparisons of US programs to some other countries, and connections to international trade issues: Brian Riedl,  202-608-6201; Riedl bio and papers  and "Farm Subsidies, Free Trade, and the Doha Round." 
Other farmers have opinions on the Farm Bill that are slightly or sharply different from that of the Farm Bureau. For a few starting points, see:
- National Farmers Union (representing about 250,000 farm and ranch families): Release of March 5, 2007. 
- Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (representing many growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and nursery plants): Autumn Veazey, 202-303-3400; News and information. 
- Another influence in the debate may be a set of recommendations from the recently-formed Bipartisan Policy Center, whose "21st Century Agriculture Policy Project"  is headed by Tom Daschle and Bob Dole. They plan to release their proposals in mid- to late-April 2007: Paul Bledsoe, 202-637-0400.
- To find out what your state agriculture officials think, one starting point is the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. 
These and many other players will pitch their interests to the House and Senate in various ways. One venue will be hearings held through about mid-April 2007. After that, there likely will be bill markups, debates, and possibly a final bill from each body by the end of July. A conference bill may emerge by the end of the August recess, and a final Farm Bill may be approved by Sept. 30, 2007. To follow along, resources include:
- Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.  Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and 20 other senators are listed here.  Some hearings have already occurred, e.g., Jan. 17, 2007,  on the Conservation Security Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Feb. 7, 2007,  with Johanns discussing the USDA proposal. Upcoming hearings are posted here. 
- House Committee on Agriculture.  Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) and 45 other members are listed here.  Hearings that have already occurred include Feb. 14, 2007,  with Johanns discussing the USDA proposal, and Feb. 28, 2007,  on specialty crops. Upcoming hearings are posted here.