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Ag Committees struggle with farm bill

DANIEL LOOKER 11/01/2011 @ 5:26pm Business Editor

A week ago, Senate Agriculture Committee member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) expected to be reading a draft of an abbreviated farm bill that the House and Senate ag committees expected  to submit to Congress’s deficit-trimming “Super Committee” today.

They missed their deadline.

“There isn’t such a draft put together,” Grassley told Agriculture.com Tuesday in during a telephone press conference with the ag media.

Grassley said it remains to be seen whether the leaders of the two ag committees from both parties will be able to produce a farm bill, sometime between now and November 23. That’s when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is supposed to report to the rest of Congress how it plans to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over ten years. Of that amount, the ag committees are proposing $23 billion in cuts to ag spending.

Grassley said the committees are still looking at cutting $15 billion from commodity programs, $4 billion from conservation and another $4 billion from nutrition programs.

But the committee leaders and their staff are still working on exactly how to redesign commodity programs. As in the past, they’re finding it hard to get an agreement between agricultural groups that represent the West and the eastern half of the country, and North and South. Part of that difference is over whether any new revenue program should be aimed at giving farmers added protection against “shallow losses,” (a certain amount over crop insurance guarantees) or a different program that only kicks in when losses are deeper

According to several Washington lobbyists, southern cotton and rice growers don’t support revenue programs advocated by the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association and the National Farmer Union as much as the Systemic Risk Reduction Program (SRRP) that the American Farm Bureau Federation has thrown into the mix. Farm Bureau is one of the few ag groups that is truly national in scope, but it includes cotton and rice producers.

The whole process is far more secretive than in the past.

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told Agriculture.com that he knows few details even in the conservation programs that his group is trying to keep going.

“Putting all of the little information we have together, and reading between the lines, I expect the lion’s share [of cuts] to come from the conservation reserve program,” Hoefner said.  It might be as much as half of the $4 billion that will be shaved from conservation spending.

Hoefner’s office in a building next to the U.S. Supreme Court would be expensive real estate, if the building’s owner weren’t the United Methodist Church.  From his window Hoefner can see the Russell Senate Office Building, where Senate Ag Committee staffers are toiling away.

“I keep watching for smoke to come out of the chimney like the Vatican (where smoke announces the selection of a new pope), and then I’ll know, Oh, they have a bill,” Hoefner jokes.

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