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House leans away from Senate farm bill

DANIEL LOOKER Updated: 05/17/2012 @ 9:40am Business Editor

Members of the House Agriculture Committee cast doubt Wednesday that they’ll follow every detail of a Senate version of a farm bill, especially for crops that may benefit less than corn and soybeans.

Agricultural economists and farm groups appeared before the Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, chaired by Representative Michael Conaway (R-TX), with the ranking member, Representative Leonard Boswell (D-IA) sitting nearby. But the full committee’s chairman,  Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) also weighed in, along with Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat.  

“…as I have said many times, farm policy has to be equitable.  The Farm Bill that we craft has to recognize the diversity of agriculture in America.  It has to work for all regions and all commodities,” Lucas’s opening statement pointed out. “That’s why it is vitally important that the Commodity Title provide producers with options so they can choose the program that works best for them whether it is protecting revenue or price.”

The Senate bill’s Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) shallow loss program drew criticism from Linda Raun of El Campo, Texas, the chairwoman of the USA Rice Producers Group.

The Senate bill’s ARC program cuts the baseline of projected spending on rice by 65% in that version of a 2012 farm bill, she said.

“That basically takes away our safety net,” she told the subcommittee.

Raun pointed out that corn farmers have benefitted from increased demand for their crop caused by the 2007 energy bill’s renewable fuel standard, which mandates that gasoline blenders use ethanol made from corn. Rice didn’t benefit, she said. Nor has crop insurance worked as well for rice farmers, who irrigate, as it has for corn.

Raun said she supports the renewable fuel standard and crop insurance. “All I ask is that rice farmers not be left out in the cold,” she said.

Joe Outlaw, an agricultural economist from Texas A&M University, pointed out that because the revenue benchmark is based on an Olympic five-year average (which tosses out the high and low years), crops with higher prices in recent years will start out with better protection.

In his prepared testimony, Outlaw said that corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum are projected to have Olympic average prices that are above 2011 production costs. (As the USDA’s former Chief Economist, Keith Collins pointed out to the subcommittee, ARC only pays on a narrow band of production losses for part of a crop, so it would not a guarantee full cost of production.)

Outlaw also pointed out that the ARC program is tied to acres actually planted to commodity crops, not historical base acres.

“When you move to paying on planted acres, you’re going to increase the amount of money paid to corn and soybeans in this country,” Outlaw said.

At another point in the hearing, agricultural economist Gary Schnitkey of the University of Illinois said that planted acres of corn and soybeans have increased in regions outside of the Midwest, while acreage of wheat and other crops has declined.

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