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Two views of new farm bill
House ag chairman: Keep it the same.
Ag secretary: Change subsidies

Bob Krauter Capital Press California Editor 1/12/07

SALT LAKE CITY - The 2007 Farm Bill will focus on renewable energy, but any similarities to the current legislation are yet to be determined, two key figures in the debate over the legislation said this week.

"We will have a lot of fights getting to where we need to get," U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said, but he predicted few changes from the current law. "I think the farm bill will look a lot like where we are now."

Luawanna Hallstrom, a delegate for the California Farm Bureau Federation, encouraged changes on AFBFs policy on immigration and farm labor during the annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hallstrom, who chairs CFBFs Labor Advisory Committee, shared some of the challenges faced at her familys tomato farm near Oceanside, Calif. Next to Hallstrom are CFBF president Doug Mosebar and first vice president Paul Wenger. - Elaine Shein/Capital Press

Peterson, D-Minn., is the new chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and spoke at the annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, however, said the 2002 Farm Bill was "good policy for its time," but economic conditions and opportunities at home and abroad have changed.

He called for new approaches to the bill that would wean farmers away from subsidies.

"In 2001, U.S. agricultural exports had declined five straight years to about $50 billion, but since then exports have risen every year to $68.7 billion in 2006, and they are projected to reach $77 billion in 2007," Johanns said.

Johanns suggested that the 2007 Farm Bill should not focus on a specific monetary level of federal farm crop supports.

In 2000, federal farm subsidies reached a record $32 billion, but Johanns reminded Farm Bureau members that the farm economy was "far from impressive."

"If dollars alone are the answer, why did we not have better performance?" Johanns asked. Currently, farm support levels are about $20 billion and the U.S. farm economy is much improved.

"This suggests that increased subsidies do not equate to a strong ag economy," Johanns said.

Peterson, in his 16th year as a member of the House, pinned the jump in subsidies on the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which drove them sharply higher under the law's core market transition payments.

"It didn't work," Peterson said.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said delegates to the national conference favored Peterson's vision for a new farm bill.

"If I had to make an assessment right now, I'd say we're probably closer to the concept expressed by Chairman Peterson," Stallman said. "What I heard Secretary Johanns say, and what I heard him say in the past, is we're going to need some massive changes. Yeah, we need to figure out a way to support agriculture, but do it in much different ways than we're doing now. That's frankly not what our delegates are saying now."

Renewable energy

During their presentations, Johanns and Peterson made pitches for a greater emphasis on renewable energy.

Johanns said farmers are finding more profit in growing corn for ethanol production.

"We had 54 ethanol plants in production six years ago producing less than 2 billion gallons a year," Johanns said. "Now we have more than 100 plants producing about 5 billion gallons and there are more than 70 plants under construction."

Peterson agreed that the big driver in the new farm bill will be renewable energy, but said the farm bill should not limit its focus on corn-based ethanol.

"To get to where I think we need to be to produce 50 percent of our energy in rural America, we can't do it with just corn. We will run into the wall at some point," Peterson said. "The future is in cellulosic ethanol."

Changes ahead

Focusing his comments on what is needed in the 2007 Farm Bill, Johanns, noted that USDA has held 52 listening sessions in 48 states, which generated 4,000 comments from farmers, ranchers and others.

"We are looking at all suggestions that have been made," Johanns said. "We've never been in a better position to develop a program that lets farmers work for a profit in the marketplace, not in the mailbox for an envelope from Washington."

Peterson, however, said he has discussed the farm bill with other members of Congress, especially those who serve on budget committees in the House and Senate. Peterson does not expect resistance in gaining the necessary funds for the new farm bill given the fact that federal crop payments have declined in recent years.

One change Peterson supports is a permanent disaster program. He said Congress will pass a $3 billion disaster bill and hopefully include a permanent disaster program in the next farm bill.

Johanns suggested that the farm bill writers in Congress should look at more than total dollars and develop farm programs that are broader in scope and take into account the fact that 60 percent of the nation's farmers receive no cash payments from the federal government.

Bob Krauter is the Capital Press California editor based in Sacramento. His e-mail is bkrauter@capitalpress.com.


Ag leaders differ on farm bill needs

Capital Press Editorial 1/13/07

If comments made this week are any indication, it will be a long, hot summer in Washington, D.C., as Congress and the administration try to hammer out a new farm bill.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and U.S. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson both exercised their best brand of diplomacy in speaking before American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting in Salt Lake City, but with a few exceptions, they appear to be on a collision course as Congress writes a new farm bill.

First, it should be said that there is some common ground between the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Republican administration. The one area of greatest agreement is renewable fuels, the new buzzword in the nation's capital. Both Johanns and Peterson support the continued development of ethanol facilities in an attempt to cut the umbilical cord between the U.S. and oil-producing foreigners.

But here's a number to ponder: 21.93 million. That's the number of barrels of crude oil the U.S. uses each day. With 60 percent of that oil coming from overseas, we'll need a lot of ethanol production plants built and corn and other feedstock crops grown to replace it.

Peterson even goes so far as to advocate a program similar to the Conservation Reserve Program that would help farmers who grow feedstock crops for ethanol. He also supports more research into cellulosic ethanol production, which would use switchgrass, wheat and rice straw and even wood chips.

Both officials also support conservation programs, which help farmers afford the cost of setting aside land in an effort to help the environment.

Beyond that, the common ground - and the specifics - are few.

Peterson envisions a farm bill similar to the current law. It would include a provision for weather-caused disaster relief, but other than that and the renewable energy provision, he does not plan to make significant changes.

On the other hand, Johanns cites ongoing World Trade Organization challenges to U.S. programs as the basis for his support of different types of farm programs.

Exactly what those programs are, he didn't specify, which is going to make the negotiations between the administration and Congress even more interesting.

He does, however, have a point. Canada this week said it is seeking consultations through the WTO regarding the U.S. subsidy program on corn. That program has been the bread and butter for many U.S. farmers.

"We will aggressively defend these programs, but there is no denying the fact we are being challenged on the world stage," Johanns said.

Since 80 percent of the U.S. cotton crop, 50 percent of U.S. rice crop and 75 percent of cattle hides are exported, Johanns said farmers cannot afford to lose their foothold abroad.

He also said 60 percent of U.S. farmers receive no help in the form of subsidies, implying a certain unfairness to the system.

The main weakness of Johanns' position is the lack of specifics that leaves one wondering what his alternative to the current farm bill might look like. Without specifics, he's just heating up the air.

Give Peterson credit.

At least he knows what kind of farm bill he wants.

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