Farm bill is a wobbly effort at best

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When longtime Texas congressman “Cotton” Charlie Stenholm got bushwhacked for re-election by colleague Tom DeLay’s infamous Texas redistricting plan in 2004, most ag policy hands lamented that much of the House Agriculture Committee’s farm bill experience went down with him.
Both resurfaced a weekend ago, however, when Stenholm was asked by DTN’s Chris Clayton to compare Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns’ proposed 2007 farm bill, announced Jan. 31, and President Bush’s 2008 federal budget, announced Feb. 5.
Bill and budget. “The secretary’s proposal is not ‘dead on arrival,’ but the president’s budget is,” cracked the congressman-turned-lobbyist.
While a clever quip, Stenholm’s review overestimates the life expectancy of both.
True, the president’s 2008 budget is DOA on Capitol Hill. Also true is that none of the six Bush budgets arrived alive on the hill. That is especially so for the White House’s 2008 spending plans for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hundreds of millions for trade enhancement; billions in cuts for price support programs. Billions less public money for conservation, ag research and market stability; billions more for private crop insurers.
The most glaring killer in the White House budget plan for USDA, however, isn’t money; it’s policy.
The Bush budget is built on an extension of the 2002 farm bill; Johanns’ policy plan – announced just five days before the budget – largely dumps the 2002 law in favor of a dramatic, near-complete rewrite.
Different. In fact, the two documents are so starkly different that aggies are left to wonder if Johanns’ right hand knows what the White House’s very right hand is doing.
For example, the Johanns plan increases Conservation Security Program and Environmental Quality Incentive Program spending by $475 million a year.
The 2008 White House budget, however, cuts the same two programs by $430 million.
After spotting just that one difference (there are dozens more), Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition wondered if “the real White House farm bill proposal could please stand up?”
Wobbly. Standing will be difficult because the 2007 Johanns farm bill began to wobble the day it hit the ground.
Take the secretary’s idea to spend $500 million per year to support specialty crop (mostly fruit and veggie) prices. Under the Johanns’ proposal, though, specialty growers would lose a key market protector – the rule that current farm program recipients cannot grow specialty crops.
In short, if the 10-million-acre fruit and veggie growers want USDA’s money, they must welcome growers of the other 200-million-plus acres of farm program crops into the fruit and veggie game.
After the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (an 80-member coalition of veggie, fruit, nut and wine grape grower groups) studied the Johanns’ idea for 10 minutes Jan. 31, it posted a “Dear Mike: No thanks” press release on its Web site.
A couple of days later, a coalition member correctly described Johanns’ cash-for-competition idea as a sop to Brazil which has threatened a World Trade Organization complaint unless U.S. specialty crop growers are stripped of their acreage protections.
“Why would we want to get rid of the only safety net that specialty crop growers have in this country?” he asked the secretary through the press.
They wouldn’t, especially since Brazil has yet to file a World Trade Organization gripe.
Reason. The reason can be found in other big changes proposed by the secretary, like farm program payments tied to revenue, not base yield or production, and loan rates switched from prescribed levels to floating, best-three-out-of-the-last-five-year averages.
All are built on trade: Johanns is the last person in Washington who believes the World Trade Organization will write the 2007 American farm bill.
It won’t; Congress will, and his farm bill won’t survive spring.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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