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Early talks continue on 2012 farm bill

It’s ironic, says Craig Brown, that discussions are already under way on the 2012 farm bill even though the 2008 legislation still isn’t fully implemented.

“Odds are that Congress won’t do anything on the new bill until it has to, and that this farm bill debate will go on until 2012, despite budget reconciliation — but even though it’s early, we still have to be ready when the process starts,” he said at the annual joint meeting of the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corporation and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Cotton Policy Committee.

Discussions on the 2012 bill, says Brown, who is vice president of producer affairs for the National Cotton Council, Memphis, Tenn., “are mainly being driven by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who feels it’s important to get an early start on the debate because it will be written under difficult circumstances — none more so than the budget deficit. He has held a series of field hearings, including some in the cotton belt, to get input from various agriculture sectors, including a number from the cotton industry.”

The baseline for farm program spending will be very difficult to increase, Brown says, and “in all likelihood will face reductions, particularly if there’s a budget reconciliation process next year. There’s even a possibility. if we get into a very serious reconciliation process in 2011, that they might decide to do the farm bill at that time, in which case all the early work that has gone on would be helpful.”

In the field hearings that have been held, Brown says the cotton industry “has presented a unified message — that we like the concepts in the 2008 farm bill. We worked hard on that legislation, which included some significant changes to improve the effectiveness of the cotton program. We had to pay for those changes with our own budget authority, and we like the mechanisms that are in place.

“At the same time, we have to acknowledge, as Mr. Peterson does, that with the tighter budget we’re going to face a different scenario with the next farm bill. The budget is going to be the overriding factor in what the legislation will look like, and if we can’t make it work under the tighter budget, we’ll have to look at something different.

“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Brown says. “Our No. 1 goal is to maintain an effective cotton policy and to maintain a strong support for cotton in Congress. But with the mid-term elections later this year, we don’t know how much that support will change — who controls the House and Senate after the elections will be very important factors.”

The council has a process in place to start talking about cotton provisions and general provisions of the next farm bill, Brown notes, “and that always includes input from producers and other industry segments.

“We will work through our various task forces, including our Farm Policy Task Force, which represents all industry segments, to look at all our options.

“The American Cotton Producers Association, which represents producers on the NCC, also has a farm policy task force, with regional representation across the cotton belt.

“We will begin working through these various task forces, looking at options, what will work, what won’t work, how something will affect one region versus another region, how one commodity will be affected versus another commodity, what kind of budget authority we’ll be working under, and how to temper the impact of the WTO Brazil — all these will have to be taken into consideration as we develop policy for the 2012 farm bill debate.”

Overall, Brown says, “Our goal is to develop a position the cotton industry can support and that our friends in the Congress can work with and pass. It will be a fluid, drawn-out process, and the mid-term elections could have a big impact on who we’re dealing with in Congress. Will control of the House change? Will control of the Senate change? And even if the Senate doesn’t change, will the chairman of its Agriculture Committee get re-elected?

“All these could affect the dynamics of leadership and who would chair the various committees and subcommittees. We still will have a good core of supporters in both the House and Senate that we’ll be counting on for help to get our policy options passed.”

And looming over everything, Brown says, will be the budget deficit and the economy — “these will be major influences however the elections turn out and will shape debate on the farm bill and all legislation.”

Disaster payments

There has been “some movement” on the ad hoc disaster authority that was added to the so-called tax Extender Bill that came out of the House and has been changed a number of times in the Senate, Brown says.

“The problems related to the bill have nothing to do with the disaster package; rather, it’s the scope of the bill, extending unemployment benefits and the biodiesel tax credit.”

The measure has “taken on a life of its own — it’s about a $200 billion bill now, and the issue is how it’s going to be paid for and which portions are going to be paid for.

“There has been a lot of effort in the Senate to find compromise on the tax extender bill itself. The last vote prior to the Memorial Day recess came up short of the 60 votes needed to avoid filibuster. There are reports that some Republicans are more satisfied with some of the changes that have been proposed and that they may now have the votes needed to get the bill moving.”

There are a lot of issues about the bill that have nothing to do with the relatively small $1.7 billion disaster package, Brown says, and “The good news is that so far it has not been stripped out of the bill. So, we can hope that the Senate will finally get enough votes to pass the bill, including the disaster provisions.”

The disaster package was designed as a very simple program, he notes. “Any producer in a county declared by the Secretary as a 2009 primary disaster area — which for the most part, is all of Mississippi — will receive 90 percent of their direct payment if they can show at least a 5 percent loss of a primary crop.

“We’re not sure exactly how this would be accomplished. It’s designed to be self-certified, but we’ll have to see, if the bill passes, how complicated that will be.”

There is also money in the package for livestock programs, specialty crops, and $42 million for cottonseed.

“The cottonseed payments would be based on production in 2009 and would be passed back through gins to producers,” Brown notes. “If the bill is not amended, then it won’t have to go back to the House, but if there are amendments it will have to go back for another vote. It’s one of the priorities of the Senate to get this done, because there are some really big ticket items in it. We hope it will be moved along quickly and that there will be a favorable outcome.”

Sponsors in the House included Travis Childers, D-Miss., and Marion Berry, D-Ark.; in the Senate, it was sponsored by Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

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