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Budget is big challenge for 2007 farm bill debate

American Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman says U.S. farmers could have a new farm program by September of this year, but Congress confronts several obstacles to get a program that's as good as the current one.

“A tight budget, competing goals of various farm interests, and maintaining political support in light of increasingly negative press top the list of hurdles legislators have to face.

The budget may be the most daunting.

“They don't do accounting in Washington DC the way you do on the farm,” Stallman said during the opening session of the 10th Annual Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference recently in Houston.

“Congress has a different set of rules it follows. For the first four months of the year, we'll have a dollar fight,” he said. That battle will be for far fewer dollars than were available in 2002.

Projected outlay for the 2002 farm legislation, through 2007, was $105.2 billion. As of January 2007, actual outlay was $80.4 billion, more than $24 billion less than projections. But instead of being rewarded for frugality, the new baseline is now set significantly lower. “We have about $40 billion less than we had before,” Stallman said.

He said the new watchword from the Democrat controlled Congress is “pay as you go. So any spending beyond the baseline must come from some other program.”

He said as many as 200 groups are involved in farm bill budget discussions. “But without knowing how much money is available, we can't discuss programs.”

Stallman said fruit and vegetable, conservation, dairy and renewable fuels interests all want consideration. “All will require more money.”

Stallman said funding for commodity titles may not offer much of a target for plundering funds. “There is not that much money available there that can be moved somewhere else. That may help us some.”

He said payment limits will return. “Senator Grassley will be back with more amendments. But with higher grain prices, payment limitations may not save that much money.”

Keeping limits where they are will be more likely with Democrats in control of Congress, Stallman said. He also said Democrats are more likely to work with the president to devise a more workable immigration policy that includes a guest worker program.

He said keeping a coalition of farm groups together will be crucial in a battle that could develop between the administration and Congress. He said both Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Collin Petersen (ag committee chairmen) support the 2002 legislation and the safety net it provided. The Secretary of agriculture, however, has promised recommendations with significant changes, Stallman said.

“But Congress writes the farm bill. We wonder if the Secretary's proposal will have any impact on the Hill.”

Stallman said trade will be important but that agreements must be about opening markets for U.S. ag products. “The Secretary of Agriculture wants a farm program not subject to challenge (by international trade). The language in trade agreements is too vague for that. Consider the Brazil cotton challenge.”

He said conservation programs will be an integral part of the next farm program. “Conservation is good for farmers, good for consumers and good for the environment. Soil erosion is down significantly and new programs will focus on air and water quality. A lot of good things will happen but we need to focus conservation funds more efficiently and target land with specific needs instead of whole farms.”

Renewable fuels initiatives offer both opportunities and challenges for America's farmers, Stallman said. “In 2006, 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop was used for ethanol. We are ramping up. Corn supplies continue to tighten and corn competes (with other crops) for acreage. Livestock producers face higher feed costs.”

Stallman said balance would return. “I'm certain that farmers will produce themselves into a lower price over time, especially as livestock operations learn to use renewable fuel by-products.”

Stallman warned producers not to be complacent. “Food safety and security are important for the American public. We have to make that case.”

Stallman said the Democrat controlled Congress would be more likely to support increased trade with Cuba but President Bush would veto any measure to open travel and trade.

“(The Cuba) policy is a failed policy,” he said. “We need to open up tourism and trade and the Cuban people will take care of the rest.”

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