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USDA plans economic analysis of farm bill options

If you have the patience of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, as of today, you can log onto the Internet, visit USDA's website, and read 41 summaries of topics that came up at 52 farm bill forums held around the country. The topics range from agricultural concentration to the farm safety net to wildlife habitat conservation on private lands. Johanns personally attended more than 20 of those listening sessions and seemed to enjoy them.

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In announcing this new resource for farm bill junkies, Johanns made it clear Wednesday that this is only the first step in his attempt to move " the tremendous wisdom that was conveyed to us" into next year's debate in Congress over the new farm bill.

He has asked UDSA's Chief Economist, Keith Collins, to head up an economic analysis of about "half a dozen" different approaches to farm policy that were recurring themes in the listening sessions. They, too, will be posted on the USDA website, as soon as each one is completed, he said, with the half-dozen reports out by the end of this year.

"My hope is that this analysis will help to narrow the focus of our national discussion of future farm policy," Johanns told reporters.

The first topic will be on income protection -- how some form of income insurance and tax-deferred farm savings accounts might work, he said. And that report will be finished in roughly 30 days. Johanns said USDA economists will also consult with land grant university scholars and others who have looked at these policy issues.

Johanns insisted that USDA doesn't have its own hidden agenda on the farm bill and that he and the administration really are trying to build new farm policy from the ground up. At the same time, he said he found a lot of regional differences in how farmers and ranchers view federal farm programs.

In areas where farmers raise the five program crops that get 90% of USDA's crop subsidies, support for the current farm program remains strong, he said. In Lubbock, Texas, for example, "person after person got up and said, 'we like this farm bill,' " Johanns said. Yet in other areas where farmers raise such specialty crops as fruits and vegetables, they had stronger interest in USDA support for research and for pest and disease control.

The current farm bill got slightly less support in wheat growing areas hard hit by drought and other weather problems, Johanns said. "You can't LDP a crop you don't raise." Support for strict payment limits on crop subsidies came up often in the Midwest, he said, while limits were opposed in the South.

Johanns did mention at least four recurring themes that he believes will be in the next farm bill:

Conservation. "It would be hard for me to imagine a farm bill without strong conservation," he said.

Rural Development. That portion of USDA's current programs was mentioned often, and no one said they didn't like it.

Renewable fuels. Both the Bush Administration and farm state members of Congress are pushing for emphasis on renewable fuels, although the two branches of government haven't always agreed on how much spending is the right amount for some existing renewable energy programs.

Little or no support for a return to set-asides. "I heard quite the opposite," Johanns said. "I do believe people appreciate the flexibility to farm."

If you have the patience of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, as of today, you can log onto the Internet, visit USDA's website, and read 41 summaries of topics that came up at 52 farm bill forums held around the country. The topics range from agricultural concentration to the farm safety net to wildlife habitat conservation on private lands. Johanns personally attended more than 20 of those listening sessions and seemed to enjoy them.

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