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No newcomer to farm policy, conservation programs have still managed to assume unprecedented attention in this year's farm bill debate. It has become as integral to farm policy as commodity programs.

Both will have considerably more resources in the future, under virtually every scenario that Congress writes into the new farm bill. Why have they stirred up so much controversy, taking center stage during the most heated debates?

There is little question that the Conservation Reserve Program appealed to farm and commodity groups because it promised to draw down the surpluses compounding the farm economy's troubles of the mid-1980s. After being included in the 1985 farm bill and growing to become USDA's preeminent conservation program, the CRP began attracting attention from many outside the traditional farm lobby.

Sportsmen discovered that CRP brought with it more wildlife and joined traditional wildlife groups as one of the program's most important supporters. Environmentalists pressing to improve water quality and protect drinking water hundreds of miles from farms soon schooled themselves in the CRP bidding processes, and were critical in building the rural-urban coalition that has protected a considerable funding stream since the CRP's birth.

Some in the farm community have embraced upping conservation spending as such programs are generally immune from challenge and reduction in the WTO, and thus protected from international pressures to cut U.S. farm spending.

Under the budget pressures of the deficit days and their fate being decided by an increasingly urban Congress, the 1990 and 1996 farm bills were well served by the conservation-commodity partnership. Congress provided ample funds for traditional farm programs and at the same time, gradually increased the resources devoted to restoring and preserving farm and ranch land.

The conservation programs run by the USDA are the single most far-reaching environmental protection programs of the federal government's - and probably the most effective. They dwarf EPA's work, in terms of dollars invested and amount of land affected. Ironically, their success and growing prominence have helped sow the seeds of the current debate.

The final farm bill will increase USDA conservation program spending. It will be the most environmental friendly farm bill in history and will continue historically high levels of spending on farm income support programs. Recognizing those facts, it can be puzzling that commodity program defenders contend that any sum transferred to conservation will morbidly wound commodity programs' effectiveness, while environmental groups insist on upping spending for expanded farm conservation programs.

The emergency spending of the last several years brought many members of American agriculture, in areas historically little touched by traditional USDA programs, into the fold of federal benefits. They have since begun to assert themselves for a share of the spending, and as so few participate in the commodity programs, their option of choice for participating in the farm budget is conservation. There are a number of important resource protection objectives on these farms that increasingly sophisticated farm conservation programs address.

It does foreshadow the possibility of a subtle shift in the political center of gravity of future farm bills. If we are to have a truly national farm program, serving the needs of the diverse American agriculture, we should reconsider the row crop centricity of the present policy. The debate over conservation spending opens that question, exposing tensions between enfranchised commodity interests and the potential new claimants on those resources, and laying the groundwork for more debate over the most effective, balanced way to support American farmers and ranchers. AM

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