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Farm groups applaud senators, brace for conference committee

The nation’s farm organizations are gearing up for a battle in the House-Senate farm bill conference committee they hope will be the last major hurdle between them and final passage of the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007.

Minutes after the Senate voted 79-14 to approve its version of the legislation, farm groups were issuing press releases thanking specific senators for supporting their positions and reminding their constituents they still have one last hill to climb – the conference committee – before President Bush can sign the bill into law.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation commends the Senate for passing its 2007 farm bill legislation,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman in a statement. “Farmers and ranchers are encouraged with the knowledge they are one step closer to being able to make important spring planting decisions.”

“The Senate farm bill includes record investments in nutrition, conservation, renewable energy and specialty crop programs while maintaining a strong safety net for producers when prices fall,” said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, an organization which often finds itself on the other side of the political spectrum from the Farm Bureau.

National Cotton Council leaders said they were “deeply appreciative to Senators Chambliss and Lincoln and their colleagues for developing legislation that will continue to provide all segments of the cotton industry with an effective, budget responsible safety net.” (Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss is the ranking minority member and Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln a subcommittee chairman on the Ag Committee.)

“NCGA applauds the Senate for working in a bipartisan fashion to pass this legislation before the Christmas holiday,” said National Corn Growers Association President Ron Litterer. “Corn growers nationwide are pleased by the Senate’s support for advancing an optional revenue-based safety net for farmers.”

“Soybean growers appreciate the bi-partisan effort that resulted in the Senate overwhelmingly approving this omnibus legislation this year," said ASA President John Hoffman, a soybean producer from Waterloo, Iowa.

“Rice producers fully appreciate the positions taken and work done by the senators who courageously and vociferously supported our industry,” said Paul T. Combs, USA Rice Producers’ Group chairman, noting that 15 USA Rice Federation leaders made trips to Washington to lobby for the bill in 2007.

One of the newest groups sending out a “thank you” release was the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, an umbrella group for 120 organizations that was formed to try to bring farm bill assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops for the first time.

“Today’s action by the Senate represents another step in recognizing the importance of specialty crops in national farm policy,” said a spokesman for the Alliance. “This farm bill includes important provisions designed to bolster the competitive standing of the industry in today’s global marketplace.”

Even organic farmers were expressing thanks, issuing a statement that said the Senate bill includes important steps to help strengthen the safety net for organic producers and manufacturers. Among those were funding for organic research, data collection and eliminating the crop insurance premium surcharge for organic producers.

“We in the organic community appreciate all the support we have received for our priorities in the Senate,” said Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. “Thank you to Chairman Harkin, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who led efforts to create a national organic program, and Senator Chambliss.”

Although farm groups were basking in the glow of the Senate victory, most had no illusions that they are in for a few to keep the changes they favor and to make sure changes they fought against don’t reappear in the House-Senate farm bill conference report.

One major challenge will be overcoming Bush administration to the bill. Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner also issued a statement shortly after the Senate vote, outlining all of the features the White House finds objectionable.

Members of the House-Senate conference committee will have to find a way to persuade the president to sign the conference report or find enough votes in the House and Senate to override a veto.

“We look forward to working closely with members of the House-Senate conference committee and encourage them to move expeditiously to produce legislation that will preserve responsible reform and improvements,” said Larry McClendon, vice chairman of the National Cotton Council.

“We need them to send the legislation to the president for his signature so farmers and ranchers have a predictable and effective long-term policy in place.”

Although the Senate is to be commended for moving the farm bill forward, Buis said, a House-Senate conference still needs to meet and work out the House and Senate bills’ differences – which some say are considerable – before a farm bill can be signed into law.

“The farm bill expired nearly three months ago, and the winter wheat crop is already in the ground,” said Buis. “Producers need certainty for the coming year. I urge the House and Senate to appoint conferees quickly and pass a conference report soon, so the bill will arrive at the President's desk early in 2008.

Other groups made similar calls, noting that Agriculture Committee Chairman Harkin has said he hopes a House-Senate conference committee can complete its work by the end of January.

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