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Farm bill debate heats up

The September 11 terrorist attacks delayed indefinitely the House of Representatives farm bill vote expected that week. That vote could now take place Wednesday, according to House leaders.

Meanwhile, a broad coalition of groups opposed to the House bill (H.R. 2646) is beginning to marshal their forces against it and for the fight expected in the Senate Agriculture Committee later this year or early in the next.

The American Soybean Association (ASA), for example, says the House bill is unfair to soybean growers. The bill’s suggested soybean target price of $5.86 per bushel and fixed payment of $0.42 per bushel are far too low, ASA maintains. The corn target price of $2.78 per bushel and fixed payment of $0.30 per bushel justify a soybean target price of $6.39, with a fixed payment of $0.69 per bushel, ASA says.

ASA also points out that the 1981-85 payment yields used in the House bill will discount soybean counter-cyclical and fixed payments by 27.6 percent (the increase in average soybean yields since then), compared to 13.1 percent for wheat and 7.8 percent for cotton. The organization objects to reducing the soybean loan rate 34 cents per bushel, as well, saying that will cut income support by $952 million on a 2.8 billion bushel crop.

Farmers could respond to all this by increasing other crops and reducing soybean acreage, even though demand is growing, ASA says.

“We are concerned that this policy would negatively affect soybean production at a time when domestic and world demand for soybeans is rapidly expanding. Soybean growers look forward to working with the Senate to develop a counter-cyclical income support program that is not tied to outdated bases and yields,” says ASA president Bart Ruth, a farmer from Rising City, Neb.

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) joins ASA’s opposition against the House bill. Bruce Knight, NCGA vice president of public policy, says the bill is biased against corn and soybean farmers. NCGA wants to replace the marketing loan with a “supplemental income protection” plan based on a national average price formula that would make payments based on yield.

In addition, NCGA opposes the Working Lands Stewardship Act, which could be offered as an amendment to the farm bill by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis). Knight says it would increase land-idling programs such as CRP, and does not provide broad access to conservation programs.

“It is not our desire to see conservation programs replace income support programs under the commodity title of the farm bill,” Knight and other commodity group leaders stated in a letter sent to all House members.

Many in the industry prefer to retain the farm bill’s conservation title rather than substitute Kind’s amendment. National Pork Producers Council President Barb Determan, applauds increasing the visibility of conservation programs in the new farm bill. He says it has the potential to make this farm bill, “one of the important milestones in federal conservation policy.”

Beef producers seem to agree. “The strong and well-funded conservation title in the 2002 farm bill is essential for economic viability in the industry and must be maintained in its current form. Other conservation proposals fail to recognize—or do not adequately address the needs of--America’s cattle producers.”

But other groups think the bill’s conservation focus falls short of what’s needed. “The policy behind the budget numbers threatens to erode much of the benefit of the added spending,” says Craig Cox, Soil and Water Conservation Society executive vice president. His organization wants to strengthen existing conservation programs and, “build a new farm policy based on land stewardship that works for all producers, for all crops, in all regions of the country.”

Cox says, “HR. 2646 reinforces the status quo in farm policy and takes no steps toward a more universal farm policy based on land stewardship.”

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) also calls for increased technical assistance provisions in the bill. They worry that it could harm the current system by limiting USDA’s technical services to landowners enrolled in conservation reserve programs or cost-share programs. That would mean most farmers would lose the technical assistance they get from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, NACD says.

Many environmental groups also weigh in against H.R. 2646. The Defenders of Wildlife list ten reasons they oppose it, ranging from failure to improve farmer income and continuing to direct subsidies to large farmers, to gutting wetlands protection, weakening the conservation reserve program, and watering down conservation principles.

“H.R. 2646 was reported out of committee after only 15 hours of debate and contains many provisions that are bad for farmers, bad for the environment, and bad for taxpayers,” says Scotty Johnson, Defenders of Wildlife rural community outreach coordinator.

Many others support the House bill, however. The National Cotton Council’s John Maguire says it would be good for the cotton industry because it increases funding for row crops, among other reasons. American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman wrote a letter to House members urging quick passage of H.R. 2646, without amendments.

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