WASHINGTON — Farm state senators and others soon will get a taste of what their colleagues from Missouri already have piled high on their desks: thousands of letters from farmers urging them to vote against the climate and energy bill.
The Missouri Farm Bureau started the letter campaign early, weeks before the bill was fully written and made public.
It was followed this month with a pitch from the American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest agriculture lobby, to get farmers to take farm caps, sign their bills and send them to senators with notes that say, "Don't cap our future."
Agriculture is likely to have a central place in the debate on the bill later this year about the short-term costs of acting to curb climate change — and the costs of failing to address the long-term risks.
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Farm lobby groups and senators who agree with them argue that imposing limits on the nation's emissions of heat-trapping gases from coal, oil and natural gas would raise the cost of farming necessities such as fuel, electricity and natural gas-based fertilizer.
A government report, however, warns of a dire outlook for farms if rising emissions drive more rapid climate shifts in the decades ahead.
The Senate bill includes provisions that would hold down energy costs for consumers, and some senators are working to add sections that would help farmers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in written testimony while traveling in China this week that the bill would create opportunities for farmers to sell renewable energy and to earn money by selling credits for reducing emissions. He also said the bill contained provisions that would prevent fertilizer price increases before 2025, even though fuel prices would rise.
The benefits of the bill probably will outweigh the costs in the short run and "easily trump" increased costs in the long run, he said.
Others are worried, however.
"I can understand in the political world why they're trying to get this under control," said Bill Wiebold, a University of Missouri agronomist, a scientist who specializes in crop production and soil. "What are the ripple effects? That's what farmers are concerned about. They understand that what's being passed in Washington, D.C., could have a direct effect on their bottom line."
Another side of the cost question, however, will be the burden on the daughters and sons who succeed today's farmers, and the generations after them.
A comprehensive review of scientific literature and government data undertaken by a team of 19 U.S. scientists at the end of the Bush administration and released in June forecast a disturbing future for American agriculture as warming accelerates in the decades ahead.
The report, "Global Change Impacts in the United States," is the most comprehensive U.S. effort so far to move from a global view of rising temperatures due to accumulating greenhouse gases to a more regionally focused look at current and future changes.
The key messages on agriculture:
* Early on, some warming and elevated carbon-dioxide levels may be good for some crops, but higher levels of warming impair plant growth and yields. More frequent heat waves, for example, would be hard on crops such as corn and soybeans.
* Other more frequent extremes, such as heavy downpours and droughts, also would be likely to reduce crop yields.
* The quality of grazing land will decline, and heat and disease will be harder on livestock.
* Finally, warming will be good for something: pests and weeds.
"This is going to have profound effects on agriculture and forests around the world," said William Hohenstein, the director of the Global Change Program at the Department of Agriculture.
Jere White, the executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, said that farmers might be leery of predicted climate changes because "they have a perspective of having to appreciate what occurred with the weather over a fairly long period of time. It's not an abstract issue to them. It's part of their livelihood."
Richard Oswald, 59, grows corn and soybeans and raises cattle with his son on 2,000 acres in Rock Port, in Missouri's northwest corner. He's the chairman of the board of the Missouri Farmers Union, which is part of the National Farmers Union, a group that supports a mandatory cap on emissions and a trading scheme for pollution permits, as long as farmers' concerns are met.
"We can either get behind this and push this legislation in a direction that will help farmers, or we can sit back and fight it all the way and get something we really don't want," Oswald said.