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Farm law wishes: Flexible safety net

What producers would like to see when Congress gets around to developing a new farm bill:

- Keep the planting flexibility of the current Freedom to Farm legislation. They like not having the government looking over their shoulder when deciding what to plant and how much.

- Supplement the 1996 law's diminishing, bare-bones supports with additional payments to farmers during tough times when prices are in the cellar, as they are now, for the third year.

Those are the two key recommendations a majority of the 11-member Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture will make in the report they're scheduled to give to Congress by Jan. 30.

For the past two years the group, which includes Sunbelt producers Bruce Brumfield of Mississippi, Arkansan Jim DuPree, Georgian Ralph Paige, and Texan Bob Stallman, has been holding hearings around the country and collecting input on what should be done when the seven-year Freedom to Farm legislation expires in 2002. They met in Washington last week for some winding-down discussion and horse trading before a Jan. 17 vote on just what they'll put in their recommendations.

Although agriculture in general was happy with the bonanza that resulted from strong demand and high prices during the first couple of years under the 1996 law, the love affair started turning sour when burgeoning world supplies sent prices for most crops on a downhill slide that left many growers piling up losses and struggling to stay afloat financially.

Fortunately, a Treasury flush with surplus money allowed Congress to step in with supplemental payments - some $24 billion since October 1998 - which helped ease the sting of markets gone to pot and crops beset by drought, hurricanes, and other weather disasters. But it also pushed total agricultural spending to $96 billion over four years, more than double the $44 billion that was specified in the legislation.

While the commission's 70-page draft report wasn't released, eight of the members indicated support for a farm bill that would continue planting flexibility, but with a counter-cyclical aid program that would boost payments to producers during tough times and pay little or nothing during periods of high demand and prices.

Their recommendations, said Barry Flinchbaugh, commission chairman and Kansas State University agricultural economist, represent "a refinement of the current program rather than a major overhaul." Indiana farmer Dan Villwock noted that the commission "didn't find any silver bullet that would solve agriculture's problems." Rather, he said, their findings can serve as "a starting point for debate on a new farm bill."

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, whose days in office are few, has voiced criticism of Freedom to Farm, as have President Clinton and Vice President Gore, citing its lack of an adequate safety net. At a conference in Washington last week, Glickman said he believes "Congress should modify the farm bill that's on the books," suggesting a program of counter-cyclical supports.

Bob Stallman, a member of the commission and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, has been mentioned as a possibility for Secretary of Agriculture in a Bush administration. He said the fact that Congress has had to appropriate large sums of extra money to agriculture shows "there's a deficiency in current farm policy" and that future legislation should offer "more reliability" in supports for farmers.

Three members of the commission - Paige, DuPree, and National Farmers Union President Leland Swenson - indicated they will likely file a dissenting report.

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