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Proposals for next farm bill far too complex for words?

Years ago, I was covering a meeting in Greenwood or Greenville or Grenada or somewhere in Mississippi when a farmer made a comment that struck me as funny.

“We don't want people to understand too much about the farm bill,” said the grower, who shall remain nameless to protect him from ribbing by his peers. “If they did, they probably would be upset.”

I thought about his words while reading a press release, which the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Ferd Hoefner wrote after Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns outlined the Bush administration's agricultural spending proposals for fiscal 2008.

Hoefner, who has emerged as a spokesman for conservation and environmental groups on the next farm bill, was pointing out inconsistencies between the budget plan and the farm bill proposals Johanns announced on Jan. 31.

He was asking if the increases in conservation programs contained in the farm bill proposals announced by Johanns would supersede the cuts in those same programs included in the administration's budget plan. “Otherwise, instead of an increase in the budgets for working land conservation programs, the administration would actually be endorsing major cuts.”

(In his comments on Jan. 31, the secretary proposed increasing funding for the Conservation Security Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program by a combined $475 million annually. The administration budget, meanwhile, proposes to cut $160 million from CSP and $270 million from EQIP.)

Hoefner also couldn't understand why the administration wants to eliminate commodity payments for those whose adjusted gross income exceeds $200,000 while purportedly proposing an increase in the payment limit for individual farmers from $250,000 to $360,000.

He didn't mention the administration is also seeking to eliminate the three-entity rule, which allows individual farmers to receive up to twice the payment per year in total contract payments and marketing loan gains on three separate farming operations (a full payment on the first operation and up to a half payment for each of two additional entities.)

Eliminating the three-entity rule, which allows an individual farmer to receive up to $360,000 in direct and counter-cyclical payments and marketing loan benefits ($40,000 in direct payments, $65,000 in counter-cyclical payments and $75,0000 in marketing loan gains times two) would inflict far more damage on larger farming operations than lowering the cap to $250,000.

In announcing the farm bill proposals, Johanns noted how important exports are to cotton producers, accounting for 80 percent of sales annually. Unfortunately, cotton exports have fallen dramatically, in part, because of the loss of Step 2, which the administration pushed to end to comply with a WTO ruling.

USDA's latest supply/demand report lowered its export forecast 2.5 million from last year's total to 14.5 million bales, and increased the 2006-07 carryover to an almost unheard of 8.3 million bales.

Those developments mean larger farming operations will be more dependent on government payments than ever to stay in business. But we don't want people to know about that, do we?

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