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Senate Deal Called Only Round One in Sod Dispute

April 8, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Conservationists vowed to combat future efforts to dilute hard-won ″sodbuster″ provisions of the farm program, following a newly minted Senate compromise on the hotly disputed soil-erosion issue.

″I think this clearly sends a signal that future efforts to weaken the sodbuster law are going to be vigorously resisted,″ conservationist Bob Gray said Tuesday after the Senate gave voice-vote approval to the compromise, contained in a minor dairy bill.

The sodbuster law, part of the sweeping farm program approved in 1985, would deny price supports and other subsidies to farmers who plant on highly erodible land. Six billion tons of topsoil are lost annually to erosion.

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved March 4 a plan that would grant a sodbuster exception for alfalfa, grasses and legumes, that is, certain green vegetables. Critics noted the action came without a hearing.

Sen. William Armstrong, R-Colo., an early sodbuster advocate, had planned to move on the floor to strip out the exception.

A showdown failed to materialize after lawmakers reached their last-minute compromise. It would grant farmers who rotate between alfalfa and other crops, such as wheat or corn, an extra year to get into compliance.

The agreement, fashioned by Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., would enable the farmers to make their normal rotation without losing government payments.

Conservationists had feared that the original exemption would have represented the prelude to an erosion not only of the nation’s topsoil but numerous safeguards in the farm act. Besides sodbuster provisions, there are a major conservation reserve plan and a swampbuster law aimed at protecting wetlands that serve as wildlife habitats.

″I think it really would have been a bad precedent to open up the sodbuster,″ said Gray, a senior associate with the American Farmland Trust.

Maureen Hinkle of the National Audobon Society said the compromise represented ″a constructive way to deal with the problem.″

″There seem to be about 20 amendments waiting in the wings, all the way from rescinding conservation compliance to various and sundry potshots at sodbuster and swampbuster,″ she said.

Ken Cook, a senior associate with the Conservation Foundation, said the action was ″a very strong signal that they’re going to stand behind a really firm implementation of the sodbuster.″

Armstrong said the measure ″does not create even a limited exemption from the sodbuster program.″

The initial exemption was sponsored in the Agriculture Committee by the then-Sen. Edward Zorinsky, D-Neb., who died March 6.

In bringing the plan to the floor, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the committee, said he had regarded it as a minor housekeeping measure, similar to the dairy bill, which merely would extend the deadline for the report to Congress by the National Commission on Dairy Policy from March 31 to the same date next year.

Armstrong told the Senate that the genesis of the sodbuster program was a soil-erosion disaster that hit Western states in the early 1980s that had piles of dust accumulated ″up against the fence-rows″ in a manner resembling the Dustbowl Era.

″Thousands and thousands and thousands of acres were plowed up and then began to blow,″ he said.

Sen. James A. McClure, R-Idaho, the only lawmaker to speak against the compromise, said he did so because it fell short of ″justice and equity″ for growers under the original Zorinsky plan.

″I’m amazed at my friend from Colorado for talking about loopholes,″ McClure said. ″That’s just nonsense.″