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Farm Bureau moderates approach to farm bill extension

Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention Tuesday adopted a policy that can work with a new farm bill this year, instead of extending the 2002 law.

Meeting in Salt Lake City, they rejected a call for putting permanent disaster legislation into the next farm bill and voted against working for mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL).

The nation's largest general interest farm organization dropped its call from last year to extend the 2002 farm bill until a new World Trade Organization agreement is reached. With Congress expected to write a new farm bill this year, it now calls for "extending the concepts" of the 2002 law.

If that's not possible, Farm Bureau members would like a farm program that's less complicated, maintains a farm income safety net, meets the needs of production agriculture and complies with current WTO agreements.

Earlier this week, House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson spoke to Farm Bureau members, suggesting that he's not considering a major overhaul of farm programs. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns also spoke to the group, voicing support for a farm bill that's more equitable and that does more for produce farmers and ranchers who don't benefit directly from commodity programs.

When asked which approach Farm Bureau members favor, Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman told reporters, "If I had to make an assessment right now, it's that we're probably closer to the concepts of Collin Peterson."

Stallman said he heard Johanns' speech as a call for more dramatic change.

"Frankly, that is not what our delegates are saying," he said.

The group's debate over the farm bill was relatively short compared to previous years and Stallman said that indicates broad support for it within the organization.

One area where Farm Bureau and Peterson appear to be at odds is adding a permanent disaster aid program to the farm bill. Peterson supports it. Tuesday the delegates voted against an amendment to the group's farm bill resolution that would have supported a permanent disaster title.

Stallman said later not to read too much into that. Opponents to the amendment said they were concerned that permanent disaster aid might cut into spending on commodity and conservation programs. And, because some Farm Bureau delegates wanted to include excessive increases in input costs as part of a disaster, others opposed adding that type of disaster aid to the farm bill.

"There was a sense that that was too encompassing, that it was too much," Stallman said later.

Country-of-origin labeling prompted as much debate as the rest of the farm bill Tuesday.

Mississippi delegate Paul Myrick tried to changed Farm Bureau's policy from supporting voluntary country-of-origin labeling to supporting mandatory labeling for meats, which was part of the original 2002 farm bill. Mandatory labeling has been delayed until 2008 by Congress. It has been allowed to take effect on imported fish, and Myrick said that's one of the reasons why Wal-Mart has switched from selling imported fish to U.S.-caught fish in its stores in three southeastern states.

Myrick believes mandatory COOL would benefit the U.S. beef industry.

"There are literally thousands of small farmers throughout the cattle business in the Southeast," Myrick said. "Most of them are Farm Bureau members and they expect Farm Bureau to look out for their interests."

Ultimately, Myrick's amendment in favor mandatory COOL failed by a vote of 62% to 38% of the more than 350 delegates at the meeting.

Stallman said later that he thought the vote might have been closer, but that it reflects members' views that labeling should be left to private markets, not government regulation.

Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention Tuesday adopted a policy that can work with a new farm bill this year, instead of extending the 2002 law.

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