Congress appears poised to offer America's farmers bold new incentives to become "greener" - paying more of them to hold their ground in the face of urban sprawl and, controversially, perhaps even writing subsidy checks to "environmentally correct" farmers.
The emerging legislation would represent a dramatic shift in US agricultural policy.
In tying subsidies more closely to environmental concerns, the bill would sprinkle payments across more states - such as California, where farmers now receive few crop subsidies.
The bill, too, is creating wary allies of farmers and environmentalists, usually aligned on opposite sides. That pairing may yield a bill that resists the forces of urban sprawl and significantly improves the rural environment, observers and lawmakers say.
"It's a turning point," says Bill Lesher, an agricultural consultant in Arlington, Va. "From now on, when we offer producers assistance, more of it will be in the form of conservation" payments.
Although the current farm bill doesn't expire until next September, Congress is racing to pass new legislation now. Farm-state lawmakers worry that next year's farm spending may be much lower than the level allotted this year, when the federal budget was still in surplus.
The House in October approved a 10-year, $170 billion package that triples the amount of US aid to farmers. Senate Democrats hope to pass an even more generous five-year plan before Christmas.
Higher farm spending is not in dispute, because nearly everyone agrees the current law doesn't work. Passed in 1996, its intent was to cut agriculture spending by weaning farmers off subsidies. But when times got tough, Congress pushed through expensive emergency aid. This time, lawmakers want to build in a safety net for times when crop prices slump.
While Democrats and Republicans disagree on the size and shape of that safety net, most want to boost spending for farm conservation.
The House bill includes $250 million over five years to rapidly expand farmland preservation. The program combats urban sprawl by paying farmers who agree not to sell their land to developers.
The current program has proved to be popular, but minimally funded. The federal government is sitting on a backlog of $250 million worth of requests from farmers who want to sign up. The main Democratic bill under consideration in the Senate would increase the program's funding to $1 billion.
"There is a sea change," says Ross Sargent of the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit farmland-preservation group based in Washington. "There's a realization that traditional zoning laws don't work to stop sprawl. This farm bill has potential for being ... a major shift in emphasis and a quantum leap for increasing the conservation title."
As the bill's environmental funding rises, environmental groups increasingly see the legislation as a way to achieve their goals.
"Agriculture consumes more than half of the landscape and is the leading threat to endangered species and polluted waterways," says Scott Faber, a lawyer with the lobbying group Environmental Defense. "Many of the nation's leading environmental groups recognize the farm bill is perhaps the most important environmental legislation that will be passed by this Congress."
New York-based Environmental Defense has spent more time on this farm bill than any previous one.
The move to "green" the farm bill also makes political sense. Roughly three-quarters of farm-bill funds currently go to only 15 states, Mr. Faber says.
Subsidies for crops such as corn and cotton help the Midwest and the South, but they do very little for a places such as California, the nation's largest agricultural state, which receives only 2 cents in government farm payments for every $1 of farm goods it produces. By offering conservation payments, legislators can spread the money to other areas and other kinds of agriculture, such as tree farming and livestock ranching.
Observers say that helps broaden support for the legislation.
Of course, traditional commodities remain the bill's focus. And environmentalists have not had carte blanche to transform the legislation.
For example, before passing its final bill, the House narrowly defeated a measure to insert even more environmental provisions in it.
Last week, the Senate only narrowly defeated a proposal by US Sen. Kit Bond (R) of Missouri that would have given the White House authority to roll back environmental legislation that hurt farmers financially.
A key test for the new agricultural environmentalism will be the fate of so-called "green payments" to farmers. In essence, the measure would offer a brand-new subsidy to producers who manage their lands in ways that protect the environment. Contained in legislation sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, the idea has powerful momentum.
"It's definitely going to pass in the Senate farm bill," says Ferd Hoefner, Washington representative for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents Midwestern farm-conservation and rural organizations. "From the political angle, this whole idea of paying for conservation on working farms has really taken off in the heartland. We would like to see a shift from paying for production ... to paying for environmental protection."
Even larger, more conservative farm groups have a favorable opinion. "We're very supportive of that," but even more in favor of a provision that will pay livestock ranchers for handling environmentally damaging runoff, says Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, based in Park Ridge, Ill. "Farmers want to comply with those [environmental] regulations. But they can't afford to do it. This helps them be good conservationists."