ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. – Even though the current farm bill won’t run out for another two years, the public is already weighing in on what needs to stay and what needs to go in 2007.
Pennsylvanians got their chance to talk with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns last week during his nationwide forum tour. Ag Progress Days in Rock Springs, Pa., was his seventh stop this summer.
Everyone from sheep farmers to FFA students to lobbying groups stepped to the microphone for two minutes of face time with Johanns
Conservation. Conservation was the day’s hot subject.
Early in the three-hour forum, Barron Hetherington of Ringtown, Pa., commented how proud he was to have received his county’s conservation award. He said he wouldn’t have received it without the USDA’s financial help through conservation programs.
This theme continued for much of the morning Aug. 16, with the majority of people either thanking the department for these conservation programs, asking for them to continue, or suggesting that they should be expanded in the next farm bill.
Penn State ag economist Jim Dunn wasn’t surprised by this conservation emphasis.
Farmers in the Northeast are particularly focused on environmental demands, he said, because there are more animals than land and neighbors live close-by.
When a farmer has to put in a manure management system, his milk price isn’t going up, Dunn said. Instead, it’s taking money away from his bottom line.
And when more environmental regulations pile up, farmers need financial help to address them.
Criticism, too. But not every speaker was a cheerleader for programs like Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and Conservation Reserve Program.
Several graziers criticized this second program, asking why that land couldn’t instead be used for grazing.
Prior to the forum, Johanns said Pennsylvania’s voice would influence conservation policy in the farm bill.
This is particularly because the commonwealth has the highest Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program involvement in the nation, with more than 140,000 acres enrolled.
Back to farming. Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Carl Shaffer tried to direct the comments back to agriculture toward the end of the forum, telling Johanns it should be a farm bill, not an environment bill.
Yes, conservation is important, but it’s just a small part of the overall picture, Shaffer said in a later interview.
“The major focus of the farm bill is to set the direction of agriculture and what the profitability will be in the future,” he said.
The goal is to be sure farmers in other parts of the country aren’t given an advantage, he said. There needs to be a fair playing field so Pennsylvania can compete globally as well as in the U.S., he said.
Priorities. Another point Hetherington made, and several other farmers echoed, was the lack of subsidies available to fruit and vegetable producers.
Hetherington said he was able to participate in the support programs with the grain side of his operation but not when it came to his vegetables.
Although Johanns took notes and nodded while each speaker talked, ag economist Dunn said he doubts these changes will be made.
With high deficits and soldiers overseas, this won’t be the time to start new programs, he said.
“Agriculture is going to have to scratch for money,” he said.
When President Bush introduced the budget at the start of the year, he said agriculture would likely take some cuts, Dunn reminded.
“We can’t do everything we want to do,” he said. “None of us [is] squeezing our hands and asking for higher taxes.”
MILC. Another major point was the Milk Income Loss Contract program, or MILC, which acts as a safety net, paying farmers when the milk price falls too low.
Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation in MILC payments and is No. 4 in dairy production.
Everyone from Shaffer to U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood, stressed the need for the program to renew after its set expiration in September.
Johanns said he was committed to continuing it.
More research. Education was almost as popular as the subject of conservation.
Representatives from the sheep industry to the nursery industry stressed the importance of more funding for research and land-grant colleges.
‘Unintended consequences.’ Prior to the forums, USDA asked the public to comment on six questions relating to agriculture (see related article) and the one phrase many speakers, as well as Johanns, picked up on was “unintended consequences.”
Again, conservation was at the top of the list.
It was heard in Pennsylvania and Johanns said he’d heard it at other forums as well: There’s a lot of support for conservation but the programs seem to be competing with farmers.
As one speaker put it: It’s hard for farmers, especially beginning farmers, to compete against the USDA for land.
For example, Dunn said CRP can be a lucrative program. When hard times hit, it may be most profitable for a farmer to enroll his or her land in the program.
But, as is the case in North Dakota, a sizable portion of farm ground came out of production. This meant not as much equipment and other agricultural services were needed and the entire infrastructure suffered.
Although this hasn’t been the case in Pennsylvania, Dunn said some farmers have enrolled in CRP and are making more money now than when they were farming.
It’s good that land didn’t go into housing, but the program shouldn’t encourage farmers to stop producing either, he said.
All of this also means renting land costs more, which discourages beginning farmers.
Johanns said he didn’t want to look back 20 years from now and see all the young farmers cash renting from absentee owners.
They need to have easy access into agriculture, he said, and they need to be landowners.
Johanns said he has two years to figure out how to encourage this.
Trade? Although trade concerns weren’t high on the list at the Pennsylvania forum, Johanns said he’s heard about it elsewhere.
U.S. productivity is growing much faster than its ability to consume, so foreign markets are essential, he said.
Twenty-seven percent of agriculture’s receipts come from trade but 96 percent of the world’s population is outside the U.S. This means there needs to be a proactive trade program in the coming years, he said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
* * *
Get your voice heard
By Kristy Hebert
SALEM, Ohio – Although discussion about the next farm bill already began, plenty of time remains before anything is concrete.
“This farm bill stuff is still in the early stages so if people have an interest in what’s happening, their voices can still be heard,” said Penn State ag economist Jim Dunn. “The game is still on.”
Your take. The public can submit comments until Dec. 30 on these six questions:
1. How should farm policy address any unintended consequences and ensure that such consequences do not discourage new farmers and the next generation of farmers from entering production agriculture?
2. How should farm policy be designed to maximize U.S. competitiveness and our country’s ability to effectively compete in global markets?
3. How should farm policy be designed to effectively and fairly distribute assistance to producers?
4. How can farm policy best achieve conservation and environmental goals?
5. How can federal rural and farm programs provide effective assistance in rural areas?
6. How should agricultural product development, marketing and research-related issues be addressed in the next farm bill?
Attention. “Complaining to your neighbors isn’t key,” Dunn said. “Complaining to your congressman is what gets your voice heard.”
Or to Farm Bureau, the Grange, legislators, co-ops, or anyone else who can make your voice speak to the “right” people in office, he added.
In addition, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the forums will continue across the country the rest of this year and possibly into early 2006.
Johanns said now is the time to collect ideas but they won’t become a specific piece of legislation until next year.
So far, he said, there’s been no interest from Congress or farmers to have a farm bill passed prior to the current bill’s expiration in 2007.