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Column: Trade, farm policy play on new farm bill

Glassed bookshelves line one wall of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee room. It displays plaques and awards of recognition. The names of past committee chairmen are noted beside gavels. Through the glass, no doubt you can hear the muffled arguments of past days in this room as farm bills were hashed out and programs saved at the 11th hour.

The current chairman, U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., sits at the head of the table, meeting this morning with reporters. He answers questions about WTO, CAFTA and farm labor, indicating he’ll introduce a bill later this year regarding immigration reform that has farm labor as a starting point.

You’ll notice the “United States Senate” coasters before you put down your coffee, of course.

What goes on in the halls of the U.S. Congress will have as much — probably more — impact on your future as a good nutrient program will have on your crops this year.

U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ag Commission from North Dakota, regales reporters with a story about Howell Heflin, the late former U.S. senator from Alabama. The committee was just about to wrap up its work, when Heflin asked, “What about peaches?” Conrad stretches out in word as best he can. “You better believe we had something about ‘peaches’ in there after he asked about it.”

There’s politics and then there is political reality.

Already, talk of the farm bill is heavy in the air. There are other issues at play as well. Trade agreements, the WTO ruling on the U.S. cotton program and farm labor. Former U.S. ag secretary and U.S. trade representative Clayton Yeutter says farm policy and trade policy are now intersecting, similar to the time when he held the offices.

On the farm bill front, the talk is about the impact that trade agreements will likely play on U.S. farm policy in the next farm bill. Chambliss says the Doha round will play an “integral” part in the next farm bill. He also points out that it’s his job to see that the farm bill is carried out the way it was written.

Groups from a wide-ranging ideological perspective are lining up supporting a different kind of farm bill that focuses on getting the program out of the seemingly amber glow that attracts trade protests from other nations. Simply put, these groups range from left to right on the political spectrum. They’re calling for more conservation programs, among other things. David Orden, a Virginia Tech economist, is circulating an idea about buying out the farm programs.

On a three-day visit to D.C., I’m sitting in on presentations and within handshaking distance of some of the ones who will be moving and shaking debate, all the time taking notes and reflecting on what many of the farmers in the South have told me: “What happens here affects how I’ll ultimately farm.”

Things move fast in this town. What’s going on one day might pass by the next. The train goes both ways, and unless you’re plugged into the schedule, you might wind up in Maryland when you actually wanted to be near the Capitol.

Back home in North Caroilna, I’m riding on a tractor with Larry Sampson of Robeson County, N.C. If I had any doubt about the impact of what happens in D.C., it’s put to rest by the majority of our conservation. We’re talking about planting the first tobacco crop post-buyout.


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