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But retain planting flexibility - New farm bill should include safety net

Despite shortcomings of the current farm law, it's not likely that there will be new legislation before its scheduled expiration two years from now, three members of the Commission on 21st Century Agriculture said at the annual meeting of the Southern Crop Production Association.

The 11-member commission, created under terms of the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR) of 1996, is charged with conducting a comprehensive review of production agriculture in the United States and the appropriate role of the federal government in supporting agriculture.

It has held a series of hearings around the nation to solicit input from farmers, agribusiness, and other sectors, and is to submit specific legislative recommendations for future farm legislation by Jan. 1, 2001.

"There is much speculation as to whether we will get new legislation or whether we'll stick with this bill to its end," says Bruce Brumfield, Mississippi cotton, rice, soybean, small grains, and catfish producer. "We may start getting some clues when we see how the elections turn out, but I personally feel there will not be new legislation before this bill expires."

Another commission member, Bob Stallman, Texas rice and cattle producer who earlier this year became president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreed: "I don't think we'll see a new farm program in 2001. We may have to go through another year of ad hoc assistance from Congress, but I believe the debate on new farm legislation can begin in earnest next year."

They and a third commission member, Iowa producer William Northey, along with Alabama producer Steve Tate, were panel discussants at the SCPA meeting at Amelia Island, Fla.

"For three years, we've been holding meetings, looking at what works, what doesn't, what other countries are doing," Northey said. "There's no silver bullet - nothing that fixes everything for everyone.

"This is a big country and there are a lot of different farming operations. If you fix something here, you have to be careful you don't screw things up somewhere else.

"We probably will end up with a hodgepodge of programs that won't be a total fix, but maybe it will be better than trying to devise a program that will fit everyone. Our challenge is to try and do the least harm possible."

All agreed that: - Farmers like the planting flexibility and lack of acreage controls under Freedom to Farm and that future legislation should continue that feature.

- There should, however, be a "safety net" to protect farmers in times of overproduction and low world prices.

- The market-oriented approach of the current legislation should be preserved.

- Given the oversupply/low price scenario of the past three years, Congress' generosity with supplemental funding has been a boon to farmers who would have otherwise been in deep financial trouble.

"We've been fortunate," said Brumfield, "that Congress has appropriated additional money for relief. If it had not, the farm community would have been absolutely devastated.

"Those of us who've been in agriculture for a long time knew this (farm law) would probably not be adequate, given the cyclical nature of agriculture. But at the time it was passed, given the impasse in Congress, it probably was the only thing that could have been approved. World trade was good and it looked as if the good times would continue forever.

"In 1996 and 1997, prices were good...and program subsidies were adequate. But we started running into trouble in 1998, things got worse in 1999, and 2000 has seen little improvement."

If the situation stays as it is, Brumfield said, "we'll have to ask for more for 2000 and 2001. So, I don't think we can complain too much - Congress and the U.S. taxpayer have been generous to farming.

"But if there's one thing we've learned from this farm law, it's that we need a safety net for the tough times and then save money on farm programs in the good years."

Said Northey: "Vice President Gore has said Freedom to Farm is `a proven failure' that should be fixed, but has offered no solutions. There certainly is some baggage attached to it, and we've spent `way more dollars than was expected when it was passed.

"The rest of the world's farmers are envious of these supports and they're urging their own politicians to match them. But, these payments have done a lot to stabilize U.S. agriculture these past few years."

Farm Bureau's Stallman said: "It's a truism of farm policy that one size doesn't fit all; with any legislation, there will be winners and losers.

"We've received approximately $30 billion in assistance from Congress that wasn't provided in the legislation. Without it, the situation in agriculture would be a lot worse. But ad hoc payments are a short-term solution.

"The current system is not suitable for any long-term planning. We need more certainty in farm programs. We need more agricultural research so we can maintain our competitive edge in the world marketplace.

"We need to determine how farm programs will relate under the World Trade Organization. We're getting close to the allowable cap on farm supports, and if we violate our WTO agreement, that leaves us wide open to sanctions. We can't afford that, because one of every three U.S. acres goes to export."

Producer Steve Tate, who is vice president of the Alabama Agribusiness Council, said, "$2.13 corn and $4.74 soybeans may lead some to say we need to change the farm law - but it's like trying to run a rabbit down with a golf cart: you can get close, but never really hit it.

"For the past few years, 30 percent to 50 percent of net farm income has been from government programs. Can we expect this to continue? Probably not."

Farm legislation "can't address costs," Tate said. "Over the last eight to 10 years, my machinery costs have risen 37 percent. My fuel costs are up 100 percent in the past year. The seed cotton I bought in 1992 for $25.95 a bag is now $52. Labor is hard to come by and wages are up 40 percent in 10 years.

"All these costs continue to escalate, and I don't know how the farm bill can address that. But it should provide some kind of safety net for times like these.

"I'm not saying that anyone should guarantee that I stay in business if I'm not efficient, and I don't think that every producer in farming today should be there. Nobody can afford to be average any more and stay in business."

Tate said producers are being told they need to be least cost producers in order to compete in the world market.

"But how long can we compete with each other? In Alabama, there's no way I can be a least-cost producer in corn and wheat in competition with Midwest farmers. As I plan for the next two years, I don't see myself growing much grain, simply because I can't compete with those producers.

"Farm legislation could help by offering incentives for cooperative farming efforts. Several farmers could achieve more efficiencies together than separately. But getting them to do it without providing incentives may be difficult."

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