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Popular commodity programs feel the heat

Are the current farm commodity programs a vital safety net justified by the nation's growing need for farm-raised energy? Or are they an unfair relic that leaves out most agricultural producers and short-changes popular conservation programs and research that made U.S. agriculture a global economic force?

Those were some of the questions raised at "Focus on Farm Policy," a look ahead to the 2007 farm bill debate held in Ames, Iowa Friday by Agri-Pulse, the Iowa Soybean Association, Midwest Ag Journal and WHO, a Des Moines- based radio station.

Strong advocates for change included Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group (the folks who put big farm payments on the Internet) and Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, a conservation group that started holding its own listening sessions on farm policy before USDA and Congress. Supporters of some version of farm program similar to the current one included Gerald Tumbleson, a Minnesota corn, soybean and hog farmer who heads the National Corn Growers Association and Bob Metz, a South Dakota crop farmer who is president of the American Soybean Association.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns added his impressions, gained from sitting in on more than 20 of USDA's farm policy listening sessions held around the nation.

The challenge in the next Farm Bill, Johanns said, will be to write farm policy "that will lay a foundation for rural economic growth for the next decade."

Johanns pointed out that two-thirds of America's farmers aren't subsidized. Ninety percent of commodity program subsidies go to five crops, he said. Meanwhile, growers of specialty crops such as fruit and vegetables get nothing (in direct subsidies).

As Johanns sees it, the nation may have a historic opportunity to write a farm bill that will meet many important agricultural needs under the constraints of the federal budgeting process.

Talking to reporters later, Johanns said he doubts that any farm bill will be introduced in Congress before the end of this year and that it could be as late as the spring of 2007. He said the Bush Administration hasn't yet decided whether it will submit its own legislation or an outline of policy goals.

Cook explained that his group "decided to follow the money" spent on commodities after it became clear in previous farm bills that commodity groups fought for their programs at the expense of funding for conservation programs. Although spending on conservation programs has grown, popular programs get shorted. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) had a $2.2 billion backlog of applications in 2004, for example.

In the next farm bill, Cook said, "We want a fair share for the farmers who don't get support." And, he added, "We're looking to increase conservation money on working lands."

American Farmland Trust, which expects to release its own proposals this spring, has similar goals that will also include some kind of safety net beyond crop insurance, such as revenue insurance and tax-deferred farmer savings accounts, said AFT's president, Grossi.

But Grossi also wants the next farm bill to offer support to entrepreneurs who raise crops for farmers markets or invest in ethanol and other industrial uses for crops. "The current program frankly doesn't do much for that side of agriculture," he said.

Something like today's small Conservation Security Program is the "center pillar" of AFT's proposal, he said. "Some significant potion of future support should be tied to how well farmers take care of the land."

Clean water, open space, wildlife, and carbon sequestration aren't liabilities, they're assets for farmers and ranchers, he said.

"They're something the public wants and we produce them," he said. Until the market is able to pay for those products of agriculture, Grossi sees a legitimate role for government.

Grossi said that many new organizations, including hospital chains interested in how diet affects health, are starting to lobby for the next farm bill and that agriculture needs to work for publicly supported reforms.

"It can happen to us or it can happen by us, and that's a very important decision agriculture has to make today," he said.

The Soybean Association's Metz also sees a need for early action, but to protect the safety net that producers like.

"Unless production agriculture is involved and puts together a coalition early, I think we've made a big mistake," he said. "Farmers are happy with the current Farm Bill. We know it won't be the same farm bill (in 2007).

"If I eat right, exercise, drink in moderation and don't smoke, would I be willing to give up my health insurance?" he asked, comparing it to commodity programs that support income when prices are low.

"It really bothers me when I hear people say we don't need a safety net."

Later, Metz told Agriculture Online that he doesn't think commodity programs will hurt funding for the new Conservation Security Program, which he says the public supports and farmers also like, although they find it too tied up with red tape.

Tumbleson said that because of the importance of agriculture in producing energy, federal spending on farm programs should, if anything, be increased, from a half of one percent of federal spending to maybe 2%.

"The world is short of two things -- energy and protein," Tumbleson said. And, as the United States moves away from an economy fueled by hydrocarbon energy. "the 21st Century will be a carbohydrate and a plant-based economy."

Are the current farm commodity programs a vital safety net justified by the nation's growing need for farm-raised energy? Or are they an unfair relic that leaves out most agricultural producers and short-changes popular conservation programs and research that made U.S. agriculture a global economic force?

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