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Farmers fear loss of aid for land preservation, environment

Cuts proposed in Bush's budget

WASHINGTON -- Peter Meinik, a fourth-generation farmer in Deerfield, Mass., knows what it would mean to him if agricultural subsidies take the hit that President Bush has proposed in his budget.

The family business, Barway Farms Inc., has benefited from federal funding for land preservation and environmental safeguards. To see some of that money go away, he said, would leave farmers such as him with the choice of selling their land or sinking into debt.

Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2006 threatens to sap several federal agricultural programs, critics say, including one that helps farmers keep their land instead of selling it to developers able to pay high prices. Without the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Barway Farms could have been forced to step aside and give up a 100-acre parcel it had been renting. The land was worth an estimated $3,000 an acre for planting crops and grazing cows, but $8,000 an acre to a developer for residential or commercial uses.

''Corn doesn't grow that high," Meinik said.

Despite the $800,000 price on the open market, Barway Farms bought the land in 2000 and paid only what it was worth in the farming business -- $300,000 -- while the government picked up the other $500,000.

Cris Coffin, director of the New England branch of American Farmland Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington, said the Northeast would be particularly affected by the proposed 16 percent cut in the land protection program because ''there's much more land pressure in the Northeast than there is elsewhere." Also facing cutbacks in Bush's push to halve the federal deficit in five years are two other agricultural programs that pay farmers to take on environmental projects to prevent water erosion, pollution, and runoff of manure into drinking water systems.

Without government help, some farmers hesitate to spend profits on optional environmental protection.

''You're obviously going to feed your family first," said Meinik, 36. ''Every farmer wants to do the right thing, but they can't always afford to do it."

There is not all bad news for agriculture in Bush's $2.57 trillion plan for federal spending. Bush wants to extend until 2007 the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, to the relief of dairy farmers nationwide, including many smaller operations in New England. The program, set to expire in September, has brought $45 million in safety-net payments to Vermont dairy farmers alone in the past three years.

But new legislation is needed to keep that program going, which is where Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Jim Jeffords, an Independent, come in. They introduced legislation earlier this month to extend the program in keeping with Bush's budget.

Still, Bush's proposal would cut those dairy payments by 5 percent and cap payments to individual producers at $250,000 a year, instead of the current limit of $360,000.

The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, created under the 1996 farm bill, kept 300,000 acres in 42 states from development in 2003, as it did Barway Farms in 2000. Bush proposed to fund the program next year at $84 million, 16 percent less than the $100 million authorized for 2006.

The Conservation Security Program, created in 2002, encourages farmers to protect the environment by cutting pesticide and manure contamination. Bush has proposed $274 million in funding next year, a 36 percent increase from the current $202 million. But funding was unlimited under the 2002 farm bill.

Also, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program that was started in 1996 to fund environmental projects such as construction of manure storage facilities to prevent water runoff into public drinking systems would be scaled back from $1.2 billion to $1 billion, a 17 percent cut.

Barway Farms, with 500 cows grazing 2 miles from Deerfield's watershed, also benefited from that program, which had a $3 billion backlog in unfunded applications in 2003, according to American Farmland Trust. In the 1990s, the farm built a manure storage facility with government help and is preparing to build another with a federal subsidy of 75 percent of the $50,000 cost.

''We are a population-dense area," said Coffin, of American Farmland Trust. ''Farmers are farming on top of people, and there are bound to be conflicts. And these programs have proven to be very good at reducing environmental problems."

When it comes to the federal budget, dairy farmer Gordon Cook of Hadley, Mass., said he leaves the process, the politics, and the uncertainty to Washington.

Cook said that if federal farm aid is decreased, only then would he begin to worry about his financial situation. ''We pretty much have to get up in the morning and get our job done if we're going to be successful," he said.

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