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Wellstone amendment would limit federal dollars to large feeders

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Backed by environmental groups, Sen. Paul Wellstone is pushing legislation that would limit the amount of federal money available to large-scale confined animal feeding operations to store and treat animal waste.

Wellstone, D-Minn., says the amendment is necessary to prevent increasing consolidation in the livestock industry -- especially hog operations -- arguing that the aid allows "factory farms" to expand and drive out smaller competitors.

"This money shouldn't be hijacked for corporate welfare," he said.

But the pork industry says the legislation would squeeze out mid-sized farmers who will be facing increased environmental costs in the coming years.

Minnesota is the third-largest hog-producing state, behind Iowa and North Carolina. Wisconsin is 16th.

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At issue is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which subsidizes the cost of manure control and other conservation projects. Under current law, livestock with more than 1,000 "animal units" -- roughly 2,500 hogs -- are ineligible for such aid.

But the farm bill under consideration in Congress lifts that restriction. Wellstone's amendment, which the Senate will take up when it returns later this month, would reinstate it for new or expanding livestock operations over 1,000 animal units.

"We should not get into the business of subsidizing overproduction of hogs and milk and cattle," Wellstone said on the Senate floor last month. He said large producers should pay for their own cleanup without taxpayer aid. The Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, supports the legislation.

Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, argued that Wellstone's legislation would actually accelerate concentration in the hog industry. New regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency will increase the cost of doing business, and mid-sized farms won't be able to afford them without expanding, he said.

"Companies like Smithfield will be able to afford this technology," he said. "But mid-sized ones won't be able to afford it without some kind of public investment."

Lynn Harrison, who farms a few thousand hogs on his farm in Elk Mound, Wis., 80 miles east of the Twin Cities, worries that will happen to him.

"I'm eligible now, but if I wanted to expand, I wouldn't be eligible," said Harrison, whose family has been in the hog farming business since 1913. "As the cost of living goes up, if prices don't get higher, then we have to expand to have enough money to live on. I don't know that the Wellstone amendment will really help smaller producers."

Wellstone said his amendment is a modest one that won't drive anyone out of business. In addition to preserving aid for those operations that are already in place and don't expand, the legislation also doubles the annual limit from $10,000 to $20,000.

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"Of course there will be some environmental standards that will have to be met because people in rural areas hate these operations," said Wellstone, who predicted a close vote on the measure.

Large hog farms have come under attack in recent years, with neighbors complaining about the smell of animal waste and environmentalists citing the danger to water sources.

Don Lipton, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agricultural group, said that was all the more reason to scrap Wellstone's amendment.

"If you're serious about environmental protection, then it stands to reason you would want the larger operations to be able to avail themselves of the environmental protections, and ensure that the problems associated with livestock operations are controlled," he said.

But Susanne Fleek, director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said the large operations will have to meet environmental standards regardless of whether they get federal subsidies.

"The focus of this money should be to help small and medium producers who can't afford to make the changes themselves, instead of improving the bottom line of a larger producer," she said. "In no other environmental realm do we pay the polluter to meet his obligations under environmental regulations."

Paul Sobocinski, a hog farmer in Wabasso, Minn., 135 miles west of the Twin Cities, supports Wellstone's amendment because it directs money to practices besides manure storage -- such as erosion control and increased grazing of animals.

"If you throw all these dollars at huge liquid manure storage facilities, you're kind of giving the subsidies to the entities that are causing these huge environmental risks," said Sobocinski, who raises a few hundred hogs on his land.

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The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers, supports the legislation, as do environmental organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Humane Society of the United States has made the legislation one of its "scorecard" votes for 2002.

"These farms are a disaster for the welfare of animals and the health of the environment," said Wayne Pacelle, the group's lobbyist and vice president. Aid should be directed to farms that give hogs access to pasture, he said, not those that "put them in crates or pack them in windowless buildings their entire lives."

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On the Net:

National Pork Producers Council: http://www.nppc.org/indexNPPC.html

Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/

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