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USDA official ‘optimistic’ on budget issues

USDA leaders have not given up on stricter limits on farm program payments even if they have promised to work with Congress to find different ways for agriculture to contribute to deficit reduction.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner met with Delta Council leaders for 90 minutes prior to the organization’s annual meeting in Cleveland, Miss., May 6, but apparently did not tell the farmers, merchants, lenders and other businessmen what they wanted to hear about payment limits.

Speaking at a press briefing after the business roundtable meeting, Conner said he was optimistic a “reasonable solution” can be found on the administration’s budget proposals that meets the president’s criteria for deficit reduction and is fair and equitable to farmers in all regions of the country.

“I have been involved in agricultural policy development for 25 years,” said Connor, who served as staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee before becoming President Bush’s special assistant for agriculture in 2001. “And I am confident that we will do as we have done so many times and that is come up with a reasonable solution.”

When asked about recent reports Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns seemed to be giving ground on payment limits, Conner indicated there had been no change in the USDA’s position.

“The president’s 2006 budget request does include the payment limit changes that we have proposed, and the secretary and I remain strongly supportive of the president’s budget and all those provisions that are part of it,” said Conner.

“Having said that, I think the secretary of agriculture and I would like to make clear that at the same time we want to work with Congress in order to achieve the president’s objective of deficit reduction, and, as I pointed out to the members of Delta Council this morning, we believe the issue of getting a handle on the deficit is critical to the future of American agriculture.”

Although no one in the administration has claimed credit for writing the proposals that would reduce the amount of direct, counter-cyclical and marketing loan payments an individual could receive to $250,000 — and eliminate the three-entity rule — some sources have suggested Conner as the author.

Conner, who grew up on an Indiana farm that is still operated by his brother, Mike, was endorsed for deputy secretary, the No. 2 position at USDA, by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley along with other Republican members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Conner repeated statements by Secretary Johanns at a meeting in Memphis on May 4 that deficit reduction “is critical to the future of American agriculture, and it is critical most importantly for the future direction of the interest rates in this country.

“We believe interest rates are sort of the cornerstone of a strong farm economy and a strong national economy. We don’t want to see a dramatic increase in interest rates, and we believe the deficit must be brought under control in order to achieve that objective.”

Although Conner did not give much on payment limits, Delta Council leaders apparently gave him plenty of evidence of the strong feelings Sun Belt cotton and rice farmers have on the payment limit issue.

“Deputy Secretary Conner has been around Washington a long time, and he has been a very astute player in terms of domestic and international agricultural policies,” said Bruce Brumfield, a farmer from Inverness, Miss., and former Delta Council president. “He heard us on Friday (May 6), and I believe that we will have a very strong working relationship with the deputy secretary in the months and years ahead that are certain to be important to the Delta economy.”

The Delta Council annual meeting was Conner’s first trip as deputy secretary after Secretary Johanns swore him in on May 2. President Bush nominated Conner for the position after former Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley left USDA in February.

“The name Chuck Conner is well-known throughout U.S. agriculture and, certainly, Delta Council has known and held respect for Chuck Conner for many years,” said Ken Murphree, outgoing Delta Council president.

“We felt that it would be extremely important to Delta Council leaders for us to arrange a discussion regarding the business of Delta agriculture with Deputy Secretary Conner, especially with WTO negotiations, Congressional Budget Reconciliation activities involving agriculture, and the 2002 farm bill being in the news so much in recent months.”

“The discussion did get a little heated at times,” said one business leader who attended the meeting. “But mostly it was a frank discussion of the problems Delta farmers have with the president’s proposals, particularly those who made investments based on the contracts they signed with USDA under the new farm bill in 2002.”

In the press conference, Conner told reporters he thought any changes in the 2002 farm bill would be minimal under the president’s budget proposals.

“It is difficult to achieve cuts in the farm bill without changing the farm bill at all because if you don’t change it then there’s obviously no measurable level of reduction,” he said. “At the same time, I want to make it clear I don’t see that there’s a fundamental rewrite of the farm bill going on along with these cuts. These are changes designed to reduce slightly the cost of the program. We will still be working under the fundamental compromises we reached in 2002 when we begin the debate on the new farm bill.”


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