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Hammering out new farm bill: Can it be done on schedule?

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns had hardly concluded his whirlwind tour of farm country to unload details of the Bush administration's proposal for the next farm bill before the various players began deconstructing it and jockeying for position.

Some see it as the sky falling. Others see it as a step toward much-needed reform. Yet others wonder, in all the USDA “listening sessions” that were held around the nation, if Johanns actually listened.

And in the background of all the discussions and posturing is the nagging question as to just how much the eventual legislation will be impacted by the on-again, off-again World Trade Organization's negotiations on agricultural programs and subsidies.

The European Union weighed in almost immediately after Johanns' unveiling of the plan that would cut U.S. spending on farm programs by $18 billion over five years, calling for “more ambitious cuts and disciplines in trade-distorting farm subsidies” (this, from the organization that has consistently failed to cap its own very expensive farm supports).

While the president and Johanns were generally applauded for getting their proposal on the table early enough to facilitate thorough discussion, nobody's betting that a farm bill will actually be completed this year — particularly if there's any reasonable likelihood that the Doha round of the WTO talks will be jump-started. “We won't write a farm bill until we know what happens with the WTO,” one ag organization spokesperson said.

The prospect of which only adds to the sour taste many in U.S. agriculture have for the WTO, particularly after its decision in favor of Brazil against U.S. cotton and its continual haranguing against U.S. farm programs.

“The temptation may be to tell the WTO to take a hike,” Johanns said in acknowledging the situation. But the president has said, “We are dedicated to making sure we have a successful Doha round,” which may well impact U.S. farm legislation.

As the wrangling over the Iraq war and budget issues continue to command major chunks of Congress' attention, hammering out new farm legislation before the Oct. 1 deadline may be a tough go. Rather than let things revert to the 1949 law, Congress would likely opt to extend the current bill for one year.

In the meantime, farm groups are getting their ducks in a row to (1) try and protect what they have in the current legislation, or (2) try and get some things the present bill doesn't provide.

Cotton and rice growers are less than pleased with proposed payment limits. Wheat growers say the bill isn't equitable to them. Conservation groups are happy with the proposed expansion of “green” programs. Others say there's too much emphasis on conservation. Growers of specialty crops were happy with the increase in support for more fruits and veggies in nutrition programs. Almost everyone was optimistic about the potential for growing crops for energy production.

There is widespread consensus, however, that the current farm bill has served agriculture reasonably well, providing a safety net to growers while saving more than $20 billion for the Treasury, and much of agriculture would not like that to be drastically changed.

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