LONDON, Ohio – Most people flock to the U.S. secretary of agriculture when he’s touring the nation to hear him speak. At the Farm Science Review, however, they wanted him to listen. It was their turn to talk.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns held another in a series of nationwide farm bill forums Sept. 20 during the Review, a three-day outdoor farm show held near London, Ohio.
Johanns said the goal of the listening tour is to get input about what’s working, what’s not working and what would improve U.S. farm policy.
The 2002 farm bill, which authorizes most of the USDA’s programs like farm price and income support programs, expires with the 2007 crop year.
Speaking out. During their two-minute time at the microphone, several speakers asked for greater opportunities for young or beginning farmers.
Julie Watson, president of the Ohio FFA, was the first to speak, calling for a farm program that offered more creative loans or low-interest loans to starting farmers.
“We should be creating policy that allows young people to be in agriculture,” echoed another individual.
Johanns also heard from proponents of nonfarm portions of the farm bill, including food stamps and youth programs like the Girl Scouts.
Broader picture. Tom Jackson, president of the Ohio Grocers Association, urged the secretary to work with retailers and producers for a voluntary country-of-origin labeling effort, rather than the mandatory label now dictated by law but still in the implementation process.
Still other speakers spoke about international trade policies and working for a level playing field in the global market.
One Hardin County speaker blasted past farm bills, calling them a “fatal mistake” that “encouraged expansion of farms at the expense of rural life.”
He urged a ceiling on farm payments, sought more funding for ag research and for programs that rebuild rural America.
Need to be at table. Clark Sheets of Logan, Ohio, pressed for more funding and continuation of conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP.
Sheets, who serves on the Hocking Soil and Water Conservation District board and also is vice chairman of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said he’s concerned down the road that local USDA staff will retire and not be replaced.
“We need those people to continue the working relationship with farmers in the area to get the job done,” Sheets said.
Sheets said he took the time to come to the forum because farmers have to have a voice in farm policy development.
“I’m afraid if farmers don’t speak up at meetings like this, then other groups will write it for us.”
What he’s heard. Prior to the start of the Ohio session, Johanns described his thoughts on the listening forums so far.
Generally, he’s heard “very solid support” for the department’s environmental and conservation programs. He’s also been reminded that rural development programs, and not just farm programs, have a profound impact on rural America.
The topic that spurred the most divisive responses is payment limitations, said Johanns, who admitted to being surprised by these comments cross-country.
Payment limit support is divided by regions, he said. At a Nebraska and Utah session, people advocated for payment limits. In the South, it was just the opposite.
Johanns said it’s possible he, as secretary, could submit his own piece of legislation, as farm bill discussions begin in Washington.
Collision course. There are two outside issues that have to be considered in the same breath as the 2007 farm bill: the federal budget deficit and World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations.
While the budget deficit is just brewing as a political issue, Ohio State ag economist Carl Zulauf warns the debate will heat up prior to the next election, and just when the 2007 farm bill is being written.
Likewise, the current round of world trade negotiations is at a standstill and it’s not clear what will happen when negotiators meet in December for the Hong Kong Ministerial meeting.
“We’re kind of in an infinite loop in terms of discussion,” said ag economist Ian Sheldon. “Nothing is happening right now.”
He said there’s only a 50-50 chance of “anything meaningful” coming out of Hong Kong, because no country is willing to move first to eliminate export subsidies or farm support payments and increase market access at the same time.
That pushes critical world trade discussions closer to the window when the next farm bill will be written. American farm policy, Sheldon said, could “potentially be made in Geneva.”
Zulauf predicted the Bush administration will not let this trade round fail.
“This is a political agenda item, as opposed to an economic agenda,” Zulauf said. “This is going to seriously write the next farm bill.”
Voter backlash. Speaking at the Farm Science Review, Zulauf added that there’s a new twist to the farm bill debate: anger at the federal government’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. That voter backlash could unseat some current members of Congress, Zulauf said.
“Whoever controls Congress will write the next farm bill,” he explained. “And it’s not clear to me who will write the next farm bill.”
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