Guest Column: Friends tell it like it is

USDA Secretary Johanns will be in to Arkansas next week to talk about the Bush administration’s view on the (fiscal year) 2006 budget and how Mid-South agriculture will be impacted. And while I know the secretary will receive a large dose of Southern hospitality during his visit, I do hope he uses this opportunity to be straightforward with Arkansans about the cuts in farm programs he and President Bush support.

Recently, the Republican leadership in Congress passed a budget for 2006 that slashes $3 billion for agriculture spending over the next three years. Mr. Johanns was quoted as saying, “I would note for you that we are still supporting the call in the president’s budget to tighten payment limits, and we have not, nor do we intend to withdraw that proposal, which we think is very reasonable and an important part of achieving our main goal: to reduce the budget deficit in half by 2009.”

Since coming to office in 2000, the Bush administration’s position on farm programs has been clear. Thanks to pressure from Larry Combest, Charlie Stenholm, and Thad Cochran, President Bush did sign the 2002 farm bill, legislation that has significantly strengthened the safety net for rural America.

However, since 2002, we have seen a consistent effort to shrink farm programs. The 2006 budget is no different. President Bush’s proposal to reduce payment limits, cut all crop payments by 5 percent, and limit the eligibility for marketing assistance loans dramatically undermines the 2002 farm bill and disproportionately hits Mid-South farmers.

President Bush’s proposed cuts for agriculture are part of an attempt to reduce the budget deficit “in half by 2009.” The Bush administration expects farmers to pay this price while excluding the ongoing cost of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, proposed changes to Social Security, and the cost of an extension of the tax cuts from the budget.

As any farm family can tell you, it becomes real easy to make money when you ignore the fertilizer, fuel, and seed costs associated with making a crop. Doing so, you may be able to fool yourself for a while, but you sure as heck can’t fool your banker for long. Not only does President Bush’s budget fail to cut the deficit, but it also eliminates the programs that provide Americans with the cheapest food in the world. If we could spend $15 billion dollars and have the cheapest energy in the world, we would do it in a heartbeat. But amazingly, opponents of farm programs somehow believe that cheap, abundant food is bad public policy. Not only is this hypocritical, it is dangerous. No nation is secure unless it can adequately feed and clothe its own people.

Previously, Secretary Johanns has stated that the agriculture community has to be willing to do its “fair share.” What is “fair” is debatable. Currently, the farm bill is $15 billion under its projected cost. I believe it would be “fair” to consider this when asking rural America to do more. In my estimation, this is our contribution.

In addition, the burden should not disproportionately fall on Southern agriculture. The definition of what constitutes a family farm should not be based on the size or value of the farm. A 2,000-acre rice farm in the Mid-South is no less a family farm than a 500-acre corn farm in Nebraska: the higher the value of the commodity, the larger the scale necessary to make production viable. To target Southern farms with payment limits is to penalize us for the commodities we grow and for our method of production, not for the stated purpose of targeting corporate farms.

We are quickly approaching the beginning of negotiations for a new farm bill, one that ensures contentious debate over the government’s role in providing a safety net for America’s farmers. Mid-South farmers deserve to know where President Bush and his administration stand on these issues. Specifically, is the president supportive of commodity payments? Will the Bush administration continue to push for payment limits? Will the Bush administration support a continuation of the current Farm Bill?

I hope Secretary Johanns enjoys his visit to Arkansas. I am sure he will find Arkansas hospitable and will make many friends. I do hope, however, he will level with Mid-South farmers about the Bush administration’s plans for the future of agriculture policy. Mid-South farmers deserve no less.

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