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No farm bill deal yet

One of the reasons there is still no farm bill to offer to the deficit trimming Super Committee in Congress is that members of the ag committees still haven’t seen a written draft of the bill.

That’s the view of Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President, who spoke with by telephone Thursday from the National Association of Farm Broadcasters conference in Kansas City.

“Members aren’t going to vote for something until they see it written, and they shouldn’t,” Johnson said. Nor would his group, and probably most other farm groups, endorse the legislation without seeing it, he added.

Johnson said that the staff of the leaders of the House and Senate ag committees are currently trying to put together two concepts, a permanent disaster program something like SURE (Supplement Revenue Assistance Payments Program) and ACRE (Average Crop Revenue Election) program.

Johnson said that a few weeks ago Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) proposed a disaster program that would trigger when income dropped below a guarantee set at the farm level.

Senator Tom Harkin, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told Thursday that a farm level commodity program may be unrealistic and that he talked about that when Senate Ag Committee Democrats met with the committee chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) on Monday.

“As I said at our meeting, the farm level, everybody would like that, but the cost is prohibitive,” Harkin said.

Farmers Union President Johnson, who was North Dakota’s elected Commissioner of Agriculture before moving to Washington to lead the farm group, has long known Conrad.

“It’s just simply not accurate to say you can’t afford an individual trigger. It depends on how it’s constructed,” Johnson said. Conrad’s original idea would have paid out on losses over a whole farm, including all crops, not just one crop, as is the case for ACRE.  A whole-farm program would pay out less often.

Johnson said Conrad’s program, and a revenue-based program similar to one proposed by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) aren’t what the ag committee is considering now. Instead, the staff is trying to combine both concepts, he said.

The delay in finishing language that members can look at is the main issue, Johnson said.

“I talked to Senator Conrad yesterday again. I know where he’s at on that,” he said.

For his part, Harkin said he’s pleased with the way the farm bill’s conservation title is shaping up. Most of the $6.3 billion in cuts would come from a smaller conservation reserve program. A working lands program like the Conservation Stewardship Program would not face major cuts, he said.

Another complication in the negotiations, as we reported earlier this week, is that the farm bill may have three different choices for farmers. One might be higher loan rates for some commodities, with wheat and rice rumored to be big winners.  A revenue-based program is seen as more favorable to corn and soybean farmers. And an enhanced crop insurance program may encourage more participation in that portion of the farm bill, now the largest, by cotton farmers.

The nutrition title of the farm bill, which accounts for most of its spending, would take about $4 billion in cuts, but one knowledgeable source says it’s mainly a technical change that would end a link between energy assistance and signing up for food stamps.

Harkin told reporters that the ag committee leaders are trying to draft a complete farm bill for the Super Committee and that it will include money for some smaller programs such as support for organic farming and local food production.

Johnson said that as far as he knows, no other congressional committee of jurisdiction is trying to give detailed suggestions to the super committee on the level of the ag committee’s farm bill.

“I think it’s important that we give credit to the ag committee leadership in both the Senate and the House for trying to do something in this Super Committee process,” he said. 

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