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Farm bill a loss for green interests

For the American Kennel Club, the question is whether the government can decide when dogs will be allowed to breed. For big rice and cotton farmers, the issue is a provision that would limit each farmer's annual subsidy to $275,000.

After three weeks of closed-door negotiations over the $171-billion farm bill, lobbyists for agribusiness and the poor are claiming victory, while environmentalists are complaining.

"This represents a very important investment for the needy," said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center, which lobbies for nutrition programs for the poor.

Mary Kay Thatcher of the American Farm Bureau Federation said the 70 percent increase in subsidies was enough for farmers to start spring planting.

"It's never easy for a farm bill," Thatcher said. "But now Congress won't have to deal every year with giving economic disaster assistance for farmers."

Environmentalists, who argued for help in protecting land and water, are admitting defeat.

"Once again, Congress was extremely generous to the very largest, most heavily subsidized farming operations in the country," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

But this was only the first round, although a critical one.

Special interests are getting a second and third chance to influence the farm bill as negotiators try to work out a compromise between the House and Senate versions.

Some policies in the bill have little to do with farming, such as how often dog breeders can produce litters of pups.

The Senate bill's "puppy protection" provision would crack down on excessive breeding of dogs in commercial "puppy mills."

In the best of years, the farm bill incites passions not associated with wheat, corn and soybeans.

With farmers complaining that they need to know how much money they will get to complete their spring planting, the negotiators have decided to put about $15-billion each year into subsidies for grains and cotton, largely at the expense of environmental programs.

The environmental and conservation money, originally $22-billion in the Senate bill, has been cut to $17.1-billion over 10 years, $1-billion more than in the House.

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