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Seeking consensus

DANIEL LOOKER 02/13/2012 @ 9:59am Business Editor

Major farm groups have been meeting to build consensus before the Senate Agriculture Committee holds its hearing March 21 on a commodity title for the next farm bill.

Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union and 11 commodity groups ramped up discussing farm bill strategy at a meeting early this month.

“It was an opportunity to have a united front, because, frankly there are a lot of people who want to do away with farm programs,” says Dana Peterson, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Her group and USA Rice Federation organized the key meeting, which ended with a commitment to work together on future farm policy. “Also confirmed is our common belief that Congress should pass and the President should sign a strong new farm bill into law this year,” the group said afterwards. “The law expires at the end of this year and producers – like all job creators – need certainty from Washington.”

Will that happen? “Likelihood and what I want to happen are sometimes two different things,” Peterson admits. “I think the chairwoman (Debbie Stabenow, D, MI) would like to have something out of the committee by Memorial Day at the very latest,” she says. And she thinks the House will follow the Senate. Many think that if a bill isn’t passed and signed by August, it will be stalled by election year politics.

If Congress fails to pass a farm bill this year, Peterson thinks it could be late in 2013 before a new law is finished. A new Congress will take two months next year just to get organized.

At their first meeting, farm groups outlined ideas they had pitched last fall to be rolled into a Super Committee’s failed deficit reduction efforts, says Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president. Those ideas ranged from Farmers Union’s voluntary grain reserve, to Farm Bureau’s county-level deep loss protection to several shallow loss revenue programs. Still, the group strongly supports keeping crop insurance, Johnson says.

“I expect we’ll have some common language at the [March 21 Senate] hearing,” Johnson says, “and that would be helpful.”

Johnson thinks the Senate’s eventual farm bill will be a blend of ideas that were put together for the Super Committee last fall and new ones.

“I think the fact that the Super Committee process happened, on net, is probably a positive,” he says.

At least it got the agricultural community thinking about ways to write a farm bill with less money, he says.

“I don’t think it was helpful in trying to get members to agree on a policy option,” he adds.

Members of the Senate Ag Committee had strong disagreements over the commodity title. Johnson thinks the more open process of putting together a farm bill with committee hearings may make it easier to for farm groups to build consensus, Johnson believes.

Already, most groups have made protecting crop insurance a high priority, Johnson says. And most believe direct payments will not be continued.

NAWG still supports direct payments, Peterson says, although “we recognize the political winds are against direct payments.”

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