In opening statements of the first public meeting to merge the Senate and House farm bills, lawmakers seemed to reiterate a common goal: compromise.
"Consensus has proven to be an elusive goal at times in Congress, but it is a word that underscores the work we do in the agriculture community every day," Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and chair of the farm bill conference, said. "I hope we are keenly aware of our responsibility to put policy in place that is good for our farmers, ranchers, consumers, and those who have hit difficult times."
Similarly, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, applied a sense of urgency to the negotiations.
"There are 16 million men and women whose jobs rely on the strength of Agriculture. They are counting on us to work together in good faith and get this farm bill done. And I am confident we won't let them down," she said.
But the legislators also spent time outlining talking points that will likely become decisive battles later on in the negotiations. Topics included the crop insurance program, nutrition program reforms, and conservation compliance.
In addition, lawmakers made mention of dairy policy, Country of Origin Labeling, and an interstate commerce amendment from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa – policy that Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., called a "poison pill" amendment.
The conference, almost two years in the making, comes at a pivotal time given that last year's final-hour extension of the 2008 farm bill has already reached its expiration date, and pressure from ag industry groups is growing.
Many of the groups Wednesday reiterated policy priorities in concert with the kick-off of the conference meeting, signaling support for the talks but keeping to an overall theme: finish the farm bill.
"With the legislation and process back in the hands of the Senate and House agriculture committee leaders and members, we are eager to do all we can to ensure the new farm bill is on the president's desk as soon as possible this year," American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said in a press statement. "It is time to get the harvest in on the new five-year farm bill."
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson issued a similar statement, joining AFBF in urging legislators to maintain permanent law so as to ensure a new farm bill is enacted regularly.
Legislators, too, made the case for their chosen priorities, from assistance for livestock producers to support for specialty crop growers.
But the overarching theme, amidst all the discussion on what should or shouldn't be included in the final bill, was the shrinking timeline to move on a bill.
"It took us years to get here, but we are here," Lucas said. "It may take days and weeks, perhaps, to finish crafting what we'll call the 2013 Farm Bill in popular discussion at the coffee shops. But we can do it. We have to do it. We have a responsibility to do it … let's not take years to get it done."