Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman will come to Washington state next week to see the fields farmers claim should be kept idle for the sake of soil conservation.
His agenda isn’t set, but Glickman is expected to meet with farmers in the Tri-Cities on Thursday and tour a farm in a conservation priority area.
The visit - promised a month ago in a meeting with members of the state’s congressional delegation - was announced as U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane was preparing to battle with House Democrats over a plan to eliminate the salaries for two of Glickman’s aides.
But a four-day delay in the vote on the House agriculture appropriation bill may allow Glickman and Nethercutt to iron out their disagreement over funding for the two senior staffers, cool tempers on Capitol Hill and shift the focus of the visit back to the Conservation Reserve Program.
Washington farmers want to ask Glickman why they finished last in the nation in acres re-enrolled in the latest round of the CRP sign ups.
The program pays farmers an average of $39 an acre for leaving their land idle to reduce soil erosion. In May, the Department of Agriculture announced that Washington’s conservation reserve land will drop from 1 million to 400,000 acres, reducing annual payments by $30 million.
“We feel we were really discriminated against in the scoring process in the (May) sign-up,” said George Wood, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers who plans to be in the Tri-Cities for Glickman’s visit.
Wood has compared his application with those of similar farms in Oregon and found that Washington was scored differently.
“We hope he can tell us why there was a difference and if this can be corrected,” he said. “Though I think he’ll dodge the question as others have. They just kind of passed the buck and said the process didn’t work.”
Nethercutt, Sens. Patty Murray and Slade Gorton, and Rep. Doc Hastings met with Glickman last month to complain about new rules for the program that they felt left Washington farmers at a disadvantage.
During that meeting, Glickman promised to come to Eastern Washington and explain the program so farmers might have a better chance to enroll in the next round of sign ups in September.
But when Glickman and other officials refused to reopen the sign ups for May, Nethercutt convinced the House Appropriations Committee to eliminate the salaries for the deputy secretary and assistant deputy secretary who administer the program.
The two officials, Richard Newman and Parks Shackelford, should be held accountable for their mistake, Nethercutt said.
On Wednesday, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, maneuvered to restore the money with an amendment to the pending agriculture appropriations bill.
Nethercutt sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter a device used to garner support on Capitol Hill with unusually tough language against Glickman’s aides.
“I believe the House must make a strong statement that arrogance on the part of unelected officials should not be tolerated,” Nethercutt wrote, calling the CRP decisions a mistake that the department is unwilling to correct.
Stenholm called Nethercutt’s decision to cut funding for two high-ranking officials ludicrous.
“I think it is highly inappropriate for a member of Congress to vent his anger about the policies of a government program by eliminating the jobs of two employees who were simply carrying out the policy they were given from higher authorities,” said Stenholm, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
Glickman fired off a letter to Stenholm, saying no mistake had been made and that Nethercutt “unfairly targeted” the officials.
“It is clear to me that these individuals and many other USDA employees worked very had to ensure that only the most environmentally sensitive land was accepted into the program,” Glickman wrote.
The war of words left other members of the state’s delegation wondering if the secretary would cancel his visit.
Murray, who had been promising farmers they would get a chance to talk to Glickman, said she feared progress on resolving the issue “was going dramatically backwards.”
It was time to concentrate on the September signup, not rehash the problems of the May signup, she said.
“Whether or not there was an error made is not what’s going to help our farmers,” Murray said. “The best thing for our growers is to move forward.”
A showdown over the funding was averted Thursday as the House bogged down in other legislation. By evening, Nethercutt was saying he hoped to talk with Glickman and discuss their differences.
The Spokane Republican continued to defend his plan to cut funding for the two officials, contending there was no better way to get the department’s attention.
But he was also talking about finding common ground with Stenholm and Glickman, adding he was pleased the secretary would visit the state - albeit not in his district.
“I’m willing to work something out if we have the assurance we’re fairly treated,” he said. That would include restoring funding for the two officials.
Glickman last came to Washington two years ago when he heard the concerns of 250 Washington and Idaho farmers at a bluegrass farm south of Spokane.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.