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Obama finds support for limiting farm program payments

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama held a rural summit at a high school in Tama, Iowa Friday. He found a lot of ideas and a few disagreements among farmers, but many of the 300 supporters and farm group leaders seem to back his support for limiting farm program payments.

Obama repeated his support for a $250,000 firm cap on commodity program payments, "so that we spend fewer resources subsidizing corporate megafarms," he told the crowd. Instead, he'd like to use some of the savings from limiting payments for increased spending on soil conservation and nutrition programs.

Earlier in the day Obama stopped in on a breakout group of about 30 that was debating farm policy and voting on goals scribbled on sheets of paper tacked to the school library wall. Stronger payment limits and better conservation already topped the list.

"I can tell we're in the middle of a good conversation and I don't want to interrupt it," Obama said as he entered the room to the click of shutters from the campaign press corps.

But Obama did get an earful.

Chuck Hassebrook, who heads the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, but was attending the meeting on his own, told Obama that capping payments "is one of the few ways we could actually save money and make things work better for family farms." That's because payments to large farms have given them an unfair advantage over smaller ones, he said.

George Naylor, A Churdan, Iowa farmer who is president of the National Family Farm Coalition, disagreed.

"It distracts people from the key issue of what we get for our products," he said, Government support for better prices "depends on taking our farm economy out of a global farm economy," he said.

Doug Thompson, a farmer from Kanawha, Iowa, said he's getting prices for his crops that he has dreamed of all his life and doesn't consider low prices a major issue. Thompson has been an advocate of more support for beginning farmers.

'THE LAND IS NEXT'

Kevin Miskell, a Stanhope, Iowa farmer who is vice president of Iowa Farmers Union, told Obama that the biggest problem facing agriculture is decreasing competition and poor enforcement of antitrust laws. With the cost of raising corn at $400 an acre for inputs, "you cannot subsidize that to profitability," he said.

Miskell said that large companies already have pushed farmers out of control of poultry, pork and cattle production in the U.S. "The land is next," he said. "By the next farm bill, the family farmer will not exist unless we enforce the laws of this country."

Obama asked the group if new markets are helping counteract some of those trends. "How does changing consumer tastes and organic farming affect what we're talking about?" he asked.

He was told that meatpacking regulations that large producers can afford make it difficult for small producers to sell directly to consumers.

Paul Willis, a Thornton, Iowa hog producer who manages Niman Ranch Pork Company, told Obama that the farm bill needs to be written so that it doesn't give an advantage to large farms.

"There's EQIP funds out there going to help polluters," he said. Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds have been used by large livestock operations to improve manure management and the program currently has a $450,000 limit on grants.

Joe Lyon, a dairy farmer from Toledo, Iowa, told Obama that he hopes Congress can resolve immigration issues soon.

"We have a Hispanic family working for us," he said. "I just can't praise them enough."

Philip Nelson, an Illinois hog farmer who is president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, agreed that Congress needs to pass legislation to provide legal agricultural workers. Obama said that he thinks there may be a majority in the Senate for that portion of the failed immigration reform bill.

Nelson also endorsed a farm bill concept advocated by the National Corn Growers Association as well as the American Farm Bureau. "I think that a revenue-backed safety net is essential as we write the farm bill," he told Obama.

WHAT KIND OF SAFETY NET?

Many of the farm leaders at Friday's session are Obama supporters like Gary Lamb, a past president of Iowa Farmers Union. Lamb told Agriculture Online that this was the first time in 20 years that a presidential campaign that had contacted him seemed serious about listening to farmers.

Others, like Leon Corzine, an Illinois farmer who is past president of the National Corn Growers Association, came to the meeting because they were invited to offer ideas.

"I wouldn't say I'm supporting him as a candidate at this point but he's always been supportive of agriculture and a good senator," Corzine told Agriculture Online.

Corzine participated in a breakout session on energy policy that was closed to the press. He reminded Obama that even with a need for other sources of energy, corn will remain a key source of ethanol. Corn has the potential to double the amount of ethanol from an acre, partly because fiber in the kernel will be one of the first sources of cellulosic ethanol, he said. "We can't take our eye off the ball of what we've already accomplished," he said. And there's a need for better infrastructure, from highway bridges to more pumps for E-85, Corzine said.

After the meeting, Obama told agricultural reporters that he thinks the rural summit will add support for his stand for payment caps when the farm bill comes up for a vote in the Senate this fall.

He said he wasn't certain whether the Senate Agriculture Committee will write tougher limits into its version of the new farm bill. The bill already passed by the House increased payment limits but did away with the three entity rule and bans payments to those making more than $1 million in adjusted gross income.

Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) have introduced legislation to cap payments at $250,000. If the committee doesn't adopt that, some Senators may try to add it to the farm bill as an amendment.

"It will probably have to be done on the floor (of the Senate), " Obama told Agriculture Online, but added, "I think that Tom Harkin cares about this clearly and will be an advocate for it. But I haven't done a head count [of support on the committee]."

While in Iowa this week, Obama had time to appreciate the lighter side of the state's rural culture, too. Dairy farmer Joe Lyon's wife, Duffy, who recently retired as the sculptor of the Iowa State Fair Butter Cow, gave a carving to Obama.

"It wasn't a bust of me, just my logo," Obama told the crowd in Tama.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama held a rural summit at a high school in Tama, Iowa Friday. He found a lot of ideas and a few disagreements among farmers, but many of the 300 supporters and farm group leaders seem to back his support for limiting farm program payments.

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