Climate bill joins rootworm, rain as source of farm angst


The administration, seeking to build support for one of its highest priorities, has sought to ease farm fears over climate legislation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former two-term Iowa governor, has talked up the House bill on his summer tour of small-town America, where he is promoting the White House’s ag policies.

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The legislation will raise energy costs, Vilsack acknowledges. But those higher prices amount to chump change when weighed against the money on tables of farmers who switch to no-till farming, convert cropland to grass, install methane digesters atop their hog waste pits or implement other climate-friendly farm practices.

“The benefits to individual farmers from the legislation would be substantial,” Vilsack wrote in an op-ed that recently ran in the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. A wheat farmer in the Northern Plains might see his production costs grow by 80 cents per acre due to higher fuel prices, according to Vilsack, who cited a USDA study. But that same farmer could earn as much as $6.40 an acre through so-called carbon offsets, Vilsack said.

The National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents 250,000 small farms and ranches and has traditionally leaned Democratic in its political support, is convinced. It is flying members to Washington later this month to build momentum for the climate bill.

“We think it’s the right thing to do,” said NFU spokeswoman Liz Friedlander.

If Congress doesn’t act, the Environment Protection Agency will regulate carbon on its own, Friedlander said. That could just leave the costs of compliance without the additional revenue stream of an active offset market created by a cap-and-trade bill.

Under the cap-and-trade system, companies can invest in programs to remove carbon dioxide from the air in addition to reducing their own emissions at the smokestack to meet their carbon targets.

But as farmers worry over rain and rootworm, so too are they concerned about rising costs and their ability to compete against farmers in countries that do not have a carbon cap, according to Rick Krause, a lobbyist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The farm bureau, which tends to be more conservative in its political thinking than the farmers union, has supported “Energy Citizens” rallies against the House climate bill.

The events, underwritten by the American Petroleum Institute, are designed to give the impression of citizen outrage at a carbon cap.

Environmental groups have criticized the campaign as an “AstroTurf” lobbying push that doesn’t reflect public opinion. Kevin Papp, a corn and soybean farmer in southern Minnesota, says the angst over climate legislation is real. Papp, who is president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the topic of most concern in rural communities is falling livestock and dairy prices. At county farm bureau meetings, however, the climate change bill always also comes up.

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Papp said that 65 percent of a farm’s input costs are tied up in purchasing fuel, electricity and fertilizer. With the downturn shrinking margins for farmers, now is the wrong time to pass a bill that could further raise the costs of doing business, Papp said.

“We need to slow down a little,” he said.

The importance of satisfying rural concerns was clear in the weeks before the House vote on the Waxman-Markey climate bill. The measure was stalled until the concerns of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, were addressed.

Peterson successfully fought to expand the definition of renewable energy, give the farm-friendly USDA authority over ag offsets instead of the Environmental Protection Agency, and provide additional financial help for small rural utilities.

Paul Bledsoe, a spokesman for the Bipartisan Policy Center, which supports the climate bill, said farm-state and rural constituencies are among the “two or three big groups” that will decide its fate, with the others being industrial and coal-state concerns.

Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota have reportedly said they want to wait on climate legislation and instead pass a bill promoting renewable energy development, likely an economic benefit to the windy upper Midwest.

Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa has indicated he wants more changes to ease farm fears of the climate bill, including a stronger trigger that would suspend the caps if energy costs rose too much.

His committee will hold its second hearing on global warming on Wednesday, focusing on regulating the carbon market.

Bledsoe noted that the House bill already tries to constrain costs but said that a stronger “price collar” may be needed to win Senate approval.

As farmers and ranchers chew over the benefits of capping carbon and carbon markets elsewhere expand, Bledsoe predicted rural support for climate legislation will eventually grow.

“There is a remarkable opportunity for farmers here,” he said.

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