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Parties jostle as House prepares to take up farm bill

With a draft summary of the House farm bill expected to be released in early July, lobbyists and commodity advocates are jostling for position prior to the House Agriculture Committee’s July 11 markup. When Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran “doesn’t vote for a farm bill, people in the Mid-South had better hit the ‘pause’ button. I think that’s true for all of U.S. agriculture – but it’s certainly true of the Mid-South. If you’re in the Delta, you’d better be doing more than raise your eyebrows when Thad Cochran raises objections to a Senate-passed farm bill.” -- Chip Morgan, executive vice president of Delta Council.

With a draft summary of the House farm bill expected to be released in early July, lobbyists and commodity advocates are jostling for position prior to the House Agriculture Committee’s July 11 markup. Will the House skew towards programs in the recently-passed Senate farm bill? Will the South find the House’s preferred agriculture policies palatable?

For more farm bill coverage, see here.

In late June, the House committee was expected to begin its farm bill work sooner but Republican leadership pushed the start-up date.This occurred despite the desire of Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to move forward with the farm bill come “hell or high water.”

When the $1 trillion Senate farm bill passed 65-34 on June 21, Lucas said: "Although there will be differences between the Senate approach and our own, I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success when we meet on (July 11) to consider our own legislation. The House Agriculture Committee will consider a balanced proposal that saves taxpayers billions of dollars, recognizes the diversity of American agriculture, respects the risks producers face, and preserves the tools necessary for food production."

While Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, isn’t “on board” with everything in the Senate farm bill, he believes “we’ll be able to work out our differences in conference committee.” Peterson said it “is crucial” a new farm bill be finished prior to expiration of the current bill in September. “Waiting until the mess that will occur during the lame duck session will not only make it more difficult, but could also result in several unintended consequences.”

To bring a bill to the House floor, Lucas and Peterson will have a tricky slalom course to navigate. Besides finding common ground between cropping regions, nutrition programs, which take up the bulk of farm bill funds, are sure to be particularly difficult. A preview of that fight came during hearings earlier this spring when Republicans eager to control deficit spending proposed major cuts to food stamps. Democrats loudly denounced the efforts and will surely do so again.

For more, see here.

The crop insurance-heavy Senate legislation has been criticized on many fronts. Southern producers of rice, peanuts and wheat have complained for months that the committee’s program preferences didn’t take into account the unique cropping circumstances and inputs required in the region. Claiming a lack of regional balance, no southern senator on the Senate Agriculture Committee voted for the bill coming out of committee.

The Senate farm bill jettisons direct payments and counter-cyclical farm programs, replacing them with the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) revenue insurance program. Many in the South say ARC benefits Midwest grain while leaving southern producers facing price volatility and an insufficient safety net.

“As I weighed this bill’s impact on Georgia and the Southeast, I was simply unable to support it in its present form,” said Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss following the Senate farm bill’s passage. While pointing to several positives in the bill, Chambliss said it “seeks to establish a one-size-fits-all program rather than recognizing the limitations of crop insurance for certain regions of the country, namely the Southeast. The new commodity title program, the ARC program will provide corn and soybean growers in the Midwest with a minimal band of revenue protection while leaving producers of other crops in other regions very little protection and certainty. If this bill were to become law without significant changes, producers in the Southeast would be left without an effective safety net.”

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran – like Chambliss, a former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman – was also unhappy with the chamber’s final product. “Mississippi is fortunate to have some of the most fertile soil in the world, and agriculture remains the cornerstone of our state’s economy. Unfortunately, farmers across the South will suffer a disproportionate loss of support under the bill the Senate adopted.”

Southern producers should be paying attention to such prominent critics, says Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council. When Cochran “doesn’t vote for a farm bill, people in the Mid-South had better hit the ‘pause’ button. I think that’s true for all of U.S. agriculture – but it’s certainly true of the Mid-South. If you’re in the Delta, you’d better be doing more than raise your eyebrows when Thad Cochran raises objections to a Senate-passed farm bill.”

Morgan spoke with Farm Press on July 2. Among his other comments:

On Senate farm bill analysis…

“We had an economist run the numbers, by commodity on the Senate farm bill. The goal of the commodity groups was to absorb a 30 percent hit to do our part in deficit reduction. That’s common knowledge.”

See chart here.

“The commodity groups did that so we could have input to the destiny of the legislations. If we didn’t meet the budget objective of deficit reduction, we wouldn’t be able to have much input.

“So, all of us offered proposals that met the 30 percent deduction. Cotton did that through STAX while rice and peanuts were trying to do it through a target price.

“We recognized that the big grain states would run – as they always have, and perhaps, they should – the corn, soybean and wheat parts of the Commodity Title. That’s pretty much their territory.

“So, when we got the Washington economist to run the numbers, rice took a 70 percent hit. That should give those in the Mid-South an idea of how the Senate bill will hit our region.”

Southern reaction…

“When the bill came out (of the Senate Agriculture Committee), Sen. Cochran and Sen. Chambliss … made statements about how unhappy they were with the bill. Again, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that two former committee chairmen voted against that bill. That’s precedent – I don’t remember when that has happened since I’ve been with Delta Council.   

“What happened is the baseline of funding migrated from the South to the Midwest. You’ll see that in the (economist’s) chart.

“The thing that really stunned me is the ranking member, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who has been known to be wheat’s biggest advocate, took a 60 percent hit on wheat (under the Senate farm bill).

“Still, there was a disproportionate burden in terms of deficit reduction placed on what have historically been southern crops. There’s very little in the Senate-passed bill that offers a safety net for traditional southern crops.”

On an unfriendly bill…

“The sum and outlook of (the bill) isn’t friendly.

“We’ve got a bill that has a new definition of ‘actively engaged’ that’s extremely detrimental to those farming cotton, rice or peanuts.  

“On a voice vote in the Senate, we also experienced the repeal of (USDA) catfish inspection, which was passed in the 2008 farm bill.”

For more on catfish inspections, see here.

“Essentially we got ARC (Agriculture Risk Coverage) for rice, soybeans, corn. At the same time, the National Cotton Council got exactly what they asked for (with STAX). People ought to be looking at that model and try to figure out why cotton got what they sought. In the Delta, it isn’t just cotton -- we grow soybeans, corn, wheat and rice as well.”

On how rice advocates tried to work with the Senate…

“I worked with both national rice organizations on this. We began in April of 2011 and said ‘we know people like target prices but we feel that we should seek an option of a STAX/crop insurance-oriented program for rice too.’

“We were of the view it would be very hard to get target prices in the Senate and that meant it would be hard to obtain a reasonable target price in a conference.

“Also, we pointed out that if a target price was in the bill, it would be based on 2008 farm bill yields. And if 30 percent is cut from that for deficit reduction, it wouldn’t mean much left available in terms of income protection.”

On the possibility for rice/peanut target price deal in conference…

“The rice and peanut guys – who are all really good at their jobs -- want a target price.”

Chairman Lucas and ranking member Peterson “have said repeatedly that the southern crops would require a different approach than the Midwest crops. Specifically, Lucas has said he feels target prices need to be considered if the crops want them.

“We’ll see, but I think the House Agriculture Committee likely could come out with a bill including target prices.”

Chances for a farm bill this year?

“I think Rep. Lucas will get a bill out of committee. He’s determined to do that.

“But will the November elections allow a floor debate and vote for 435 members who have to go back home and run this November? They’re going to cut food stamps, cut conservation, cut commodity programs and rural development? So, does either party want a farm bill vote prior to election?

“I think that’s where the test lies. But as far as (House Agriculture Committee leadership’s) resolve, they want a bill out of committee. And I think that will happen – and it will be friendlier to the South than the Senate’s. Farmers here will certainly be happy about that.”

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