The 2002 farm legislation will likely be more “green” than many observers would have anticipated only two or three months ago, according to John Rounsaville, legislative aide for Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss.
Rounsaville, who spoke at the recent meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association, says he's certain that conservation measures will be a large part of whatever new farm legislation makes it through Congress.
He expects conservation spending to at least double from $2 billion to $4 billion and says a $5 billion allocation is not out of the question. Rounsaville is also projecting an increase in funding for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) from its current annual funding level of $200 million to as much as $2 billion per year.
“Conservation is going to play a huge role in future farm policy,” he says.
Hunter Moorehead, legislative aide to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., agrees that environmental conservation interests will serve a key role in the formulating of future farm policy.
With Sen. Tom Harkin, R-Iowa, now chairman of the Senate agricultural appropriations committee, Moorehead says, the number of conservation measures written into the 2002 Farm Bill will likely increase. “Senator Harkin is very involved in conservation and he is certainly pushing that agenda, but the more money you spend on conservation the less you can spend on crop subsidy programs,” he says. “Senator Cochran will insure, though, that whatever conservation programs are brought in will be well suited to our area.”
Harkin has also been very vocal in his opinion that he believes AMTA market loss assistance payments are not going to the actual farmer and are instead going to landowners. That belief may pit the Southern contingent in the Senate against the majority's party power.
Not to worry, Moorehead says. “We will have five people on the agricultural committee that will be together on most ag issues. We won't necessarily disagree with Harkin on all ag issues and we won't be setting up to disagree with Harkin. We will simply be a force that will be very powerful in the farm policy discussion.
“Anytime you get five people aligned together from the Mid-South and the Southeast among a total of 20 people, you've got a force to be reckoned with,” he says.
Another barrier to crafting a farm bill with the highest level of support to farmers possible, according to Rounsaville is the decreasing number of legislators from agriculture dependent districts.
“The voices of rural America are becoming weaker due to increase of the number of Congress members from urban areas. For the most part members who don't sit on the agricultural committee don't know anything about farm policy,” he says. “There are a lot of big issues out there, like education, that are going to take precedence over agricultural policy. So, we're going to have to work hard to get our share of the pie.”
The farm policy debate is gaining steam in the nation's capital as Sunbelt members of both houses rededicate themselves to providing a safety net for their farmer-constituents.
While it's still too early to detail exactly what the line-by-line provisions of the next Farm Bill will be, there are some policies, like the planting flexibility provided by the FAIR Act, which will likely be included in the 2002 legislation. What else is included in the final policy may come down to a battle between Southern and Midwestern agricultural interests.
“The House has been on a tear the past two years getting ready to write a new farm bill,” says Rounsaville.
After holding community hearings and listening to the testimony of various commodity groups, the House is beginning to mark up its version of the 2002 farm bill. “We expect the bill to be completed and ready to come out of committee by the end of August,” Rounsaville says.
According to Moorehead, the Senate is a little behind the House fast-track for writing the new agricultural policy. While work on the 2002 bill has begun in the Senate, nothing is expected to reach the floor by the end of this summer.
Pickering's farm legislation priorities, Rounsaville says, are to maintain the flexibility of Freedom to Farm and to implement a counter-cyclical revenue support system. “We're on the fourth year of farmer bail-outs and this is going to come to an end in the not-too-distant future,” he says.
Rounsaville compares the farm bill to a three-legged stool where it is critical that each leg be balanced with the other two. The proposed legs he refers to are a fixed payment, a marketing loan program, and a counter-cyclical program.
On the Senate side, Moorehead says there are basically three farm bill proposals being floated around the chamber.
The first proposal centers on an Agricultural Market Transition Act (AMTA) type of payment with a counter cyclical component that would provide a direct payment to the farmer in low revenue years.
Another plan balances government loan rates with the national soybean loan rate of $5.26 per bushel. “The national soybean loan rate is a little high in comparison to other loan rates. Most commodity groups want to balance the loan rates for their crops with the soybean loan rate, which would, for example, raise the cotton loan rate to about 55-cents per pound,” Moorehead says.
Yet another concept is to abolish loan rates altogether and come in instead with a higher AMTA payment along with some type of counter-cyclical provision.
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