Top USDA official says failure to pass a new farm bill would be 'catastrophic' for agriculture

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By SCOTT SONNER

Associated Press Writer

SPARKS, Nev. (AP) -- Failure to reach agreement on a new farm bill before the old one expires March 15 would be "catastrophic" for most agricultural sectors of the U.S. economy, a top USDA official said.

But Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey also said Monday he's increasingly optimistic Congress and the White House will strike a deal after lawmakers initially had refused to take seriously the administration's insistence the legislation include no tax increases.

"I think the odds are pretty good," Rey told The Associated Press after a speech to the National Association of Conservation Districts. He urged members to press their representatives to approve a new five-year bill before the current 2002 law expires.

"The consequences of not getting a bill would be catastrophic for agriculture. We would be reverting back to 1940s legislation. Almost all of our conservation programs would be lost. Many of the modern day agriculture programs would not be funded," he said in an interview.

Rey, undersecretary for national resources and the environment, said that prior to last week he had been pessimistic about an agreement being reached but that the political climate changed when President Bush threatened on Thursday to veto any farm bill that raises taxes.

"Up until last week, I think a lot of people thought, 'Well, the administration is just blowing smoke,"' Rey told the AP, noting it was the first administration since Nixon's in the late 1960s to draft its own proposal.

Because farm bills typically are written in Congress, Rey said, the thinking on Capitol Hill was "it doesn't matter whether they (the White House) are raising a squawk about the spending, about the tax increases, about the budget gimmicks -- they are going to sign whatever we send them."

"I think last week the president sent a pretty clear message that is not the case," Rey said.

Democratic leaders of the agriculture panels in both houses have suggested that if the negotiations come to a stalemate, Congress might bypass an extension of the current law and allow farm policy to revert to permanent statutes last updated in 1949. That could cause major problems for the dairy and soybean industries, among others, and would eliminate newer programs designed to protect environmentally sensitive land and extra dollars for the fruit and vegetable industries.

Since Bush issued his veto threat, Rey said key House members seem to be "coming to the conclusion" the president won't sign a farm bill with any tax increases but "I don't think the Senate is there yet."

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- Arkansas is counting its chickens and tracking chicken litter in response to an Oklahoma lawsuit that accuses several poultry companies of polluting the Illinois River watershed.

All chicken farmers with at least 2,500 confined birds are required to register on the statewide poultry registry each year.

The effort began in 2004 after Oklahoma officials questioned Arkansas environmental workers about chicken litter removal methods.

"We didn't have any data at that point about disposal," said Patrick Fisk of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The following year, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson sued 14 Arkansas-based poultry companies. Edmondson alleged the chicken litter was polluting the Illinois River watershed, and he asked the court to stop the application of litter on land in the region. The case is pending in federal court.

The Arkansas registry keeps track of the type and number of poultry produced in the state. It also documents how chicken litter is disposed of in Arkansas.

The first failing-to-register offense is punishable by a written notice. The second can lead to a fine of $50 and the third offense can result in a fine of $500.