The chess pieces on the Farm Bill board are finally starting to move. And the early signs point to a bloody battle ahead for new farm policy legislation.
The jockeying began last year, when Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns began his 48-state listening session tour - perhaps the most extensive effort by an ag secretary to hear from grassroots farmers in the 60-year history of farm bills. Then November elections rolled around. Republicans found themselves out of favor and out of power. There was a new sheriff in town named Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the new chair at the House Ag Committee.
Peterson brings his own ideas to the Farm Bill table, and they may not be at all the same as those over at USDA.
Both men made remarks in
Johanns, oh the other hand, said the 2002 Farm Bill was "good for its time, but the economics of the time don't apply now.bCrLf
Better times today Johanns argues that in 2001 exports had declined for five straight years, to $50 billion. Since then, exports have risen for five years to $68.7 billion and are projected to be $77 billion in 2007. In '01, debt-to-asset ratio averaged around 15%; today it's around 11%. Wheat set 10-year highs last year. And of course, no one could have predicted the huge demand fueled by the biofuel industry.
Johanns rightly points out that every farm bill is built on the shoulders of the previous bill. "And if you trace the history of farm bills back to the '30s when farm policy was first developed to help farmers try to survive the Depression, again you'd see elements of that same philosophy dating back to that period of time,bCrLf he told a group of cotton growers last week.
Johanns doesn't believe farmers still want to extend the current bill. "There was a point in time within the last year where many, in fact some well-recognized farm groups, were just calling for a straightforward, simple extension,bCrLf he says. "I don't hear that so much any more. I think that pretty well has died away.bCrLf
Those listening sessions USDA held last year convinced Johanns farm policy needs to go beyond just commodity crops listed in the Commodity title. He's discovered that a lot of farmers don't get a cash subsidy — 60% in fact — and they aren't necessarily asking for one in the new farm bill, either. But they are asking for increased funding for conservation, research, market promotion, and phytosanitary/sanitary issues.
"We sometimes call those farmers specialty crop farmers,bCrLf he says. "Although they grow a very, very different crop than what I grew up with, I've been on their farms and these folks are farmers. They believe in agriculture, they believe in the crop they are growing, and now our specialty crops are equivalent in value to our program crops. They are equal. So they are saying, 'Mike, we want a place at the table.' They are saying to Congress, 'We want a place at the table.'bCrLf
The other problem with the current farm bill is Loan Deficiency Payments. Farmers who suffered low yields from some kind of drought or catastrophe don't have the bushels for an LDP. "At a time you desperately need that safety net, it isn't there,bCrLf says Johanns of LDPs. Meanwhile, the guy who is fortunate to have plenty in the bin is overcompensated from Uncle Sam, because he has the bushels.
That's not what was intended by 'safety net' no matter how you define it. No wonder the National Corn Growers Association is proposing a revenue assurance plan.
So next month, when USDA rolls out its Farm Bill plan, you won't hear Mike Johanns talk about a simple extension. And that's why we're going to see fireworks this spring and summer.