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COLUMN: 'Reunion' talks focuses on Grassley

Folks from the Louisiana Gulf Coast to the Missouri Bootheel greet each other on the Cook Convention Center floor in Memphis and began catching up on the events that have transpired since last year’s show.

The farm bill was the chief topic at this year’s reunion; specifically, the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment. Farmer after farmer asked how soon a farm bill might be completed, and whether the final bill would contain the Grassley-Dorgan amendment.

The continued uncertainty over the farm bill prompted Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry, who is becoming like a “favorite uncle” to many, to speak at the Gin Show’s Saturday morning update session.

Berry, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, but not the House-Senate conference committee working on the bill, talked about the urgency of passing legislation sooner rather than later because of the worsening budget outlook for the federal government.

“The good news is — and I don’t want anyone to go out and borrow or loan any money based on what I say — is that we think we will have a farm bill by March 15,” he said. “If we do, I think it will be a pretty decent bill. If we go beyond that, it will mean we’re having a lot of trouble reaching an agreement.”

Berry, who represents northeast Arkansas, said he didn’t want to go into specifics about why he is “cautiously optimistic” that farmers could have a farm bill before Congress leaves for its Easter recess on March 22. “Let’s just say I feel much better than I did two weeks ago,” he said. “If you had heard me then, you wouldn’t have thought we had a prayer for a farm bill.”

One reason for Berry’s optimism may be the make-up of the House members of the conference committee. With four members from the Mid-West, three from California, two from Texas and one from Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Virginia, the House side has a decided Sun Belt and cotton and rice flavor.

The Senators are mostly Midwesterners except for North Carolina’s Jesse Helms and Mississippi’s Thad Cochran.

Berry took a swat at the Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook, saying the man responsible for posting information about government payments to farmers had done more to “harm American agriculture and legitimate scientific progress” than any other individual.

“Because of what he has said and done, we had an unholy alliance between the environmental wackoes and the people who philosophically don’t believe that government has a role in anything. The coming together of these groups produced a vote on the Grassley amendment that was overwhelming.”

Since then, Berry noted, some of those who supported the amendment have realized they made a mistake. “Because of that, we will see a coming together in the conference committee that will deal with some of these contentious issues such as payment limits.”

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