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Southern leadership seriously lacking in this farm bill debate

Southern farm organizations just experienced their first farm bill battle in a long time without a member from their region serving as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

While the damage could have been worse – the Senate could have adopted Sen. Charles Grassley’s perennial payment limit amendment for crop insurance benefits – the battle left many Sunbelt farmers with serious anxiety feelings.

This farm bill, for the first time in who knows how long, was written by a Senate Agriculture Committee chaired by a Democratic senator from Michigan. The ranking Republican is a senator from Kansas, and, while Kansas grows a small acreage of cotton, it would be fair to say the state’s senior senator is not a champion of Southern row crop farmers.

Most senators from below the Mason-Dixon line voted against the legislation, passed the Senate by a vote of 65-34. The House has not finished writing its version of the bill.

Gone are the direct payments of the last two farm bills that Southern growers could use to help secure farm operating loans. More importantly, the crop insurance-based program inserted in their place does not appear to provide a true safety net for peanut and rice producers.

Cotton leaders said they had “reservations" about a number of provisions in the Senate bill and said they looked forward to working with the House Agriculture Committee as it completes its own version of the farm bill.

The outlook is somewhat brighter for Southern interests in the House Ag Committee, which is chaired by Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas. The ranking member, Colin Peterson of Minnesota, has shown more sympathy for Southern agriculture over the years than some of the newer members of Congress from the region.

The handicappers aren’t giving good odds that the House will finish its farm bill, pass it and take it through a conference committee before the Nov. 6 election as some observers are hoping for. But then no one gave the Senate Agriculture Committee much chance of drafting and, in fact, passing a bill before the July 4 recess.

Could a Senate led by a Southern Democrat or Republican have passed a farm bill more favorable to Southern farming interests? Hard to say. It may be that only a bill written by Midwesterners could have passed the Senate by such a wide margin so early in the session. It would have been interesting to see how Southern leadership would have fared this time.

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