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U.S. shouldn't tip hand on WTO

The next farm bill likely will undergo a number of manifestations before Congress writes it and President Bush signs it, hopefully in 2007. But U.S. negotiators should not “tip their hands” on the new law until they wring all the concessions they can out of the Doha Round.

Instead, U.S. representatives should stay “poker-faced and not show our cards during the WTO negotiations by making public declarations about changes to our current farm bill that will put U.S. producers at a serious competitive disadvantage,” said Harris Armour, a cotton and soybean producer from Somerville, Tenn.

All those references by Armour to poker playing drew a strong response from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns during USDA's first Farm Bill Forum in Nashville, Tenn., July 7. Armour was one of several west Tennessee farmers who spoke at the forum.

Saying, “this gentleman was making some really excellent points,” Johanns reminded the studio audience for the live broadcast on RDF-TV that the current law, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, does run through 2007.

“I fully anticipate that the life of this farm bill will be through 2007,” Johanns said. “So if anyone is out there thinking that we're going to try to pass a farm bill in 2005, that's not what we're about. We're just trying to get ahead of this and get people thinking about the very issues this gentleman has raised.”

In the two minutes allotted to all speakers at the first farm bill listening session, Armour asked Johanns to “stay the course” with the current farm bill until it is scheduled to expire in 2007.

“We do not need to make changes in the current farm bill until we know the results of the Doha negotiations and what concessions we're going to receive from our trading partners, especially in the area of market access,” said Armour, a director of the Cotton Board, the organization that oversees the cotton checkoff program.

“Any changes made should ensure our competitive advantage provided to us by our soils, our climate and our production capacities that we have in this country. And these should not be jeopardized by inappropriate government action. We should stay poker-faced and not show our cards during the negotiations by making public declarations about changes to our current farm bill which will put U.S. producers at a serious competitive disadvantage.”

Armour said any changes in the World Trade Organization rules will require a transition period for farmers. “We will continue to need income support, such as the marketing loan and the counter-cyclical payments, which decline as market opportunities are realized. During this transition, we need to be sure that negotiated agreements are being met and promises are being kept.”

Later, Armour told reporters attending the USDA forum that a transition period is critical for U.S. agriculture no matter what happens in the Doha Round of the WTO or the farm bill deliberations.

“I'm not sure we can survive if we do away with the current farm programs,” he said. “President Bush has said he's willing to do away with all the farm subsidies if other countries will do away with theirs, but we can't just throw away our hole card until we know what kind of concessions the other countries are willing to make.

“The 2002 farm bill is working — it has actually saved money. It will be tougher for many of us to continue farming without it. We have to decide what we're willing to go to the ropes for in these trade negotiations.”

Armour's comments were echoed by a caller to the TV program named Tim from southwest Minnesota, who said U.S. farmers cannot compete against other nations.

“We can compete farmer against farmer,” he said. “However, when we have to compete against other nations' subsidies, and they are being subsidized far more heavily than what we are, we're in trouble.”

“We have maintained all along that if other countries are willing to deal with the very issues he's talking about — market access, bringing their subsidies down — that our American farmer and rancher can compete with any other farmer and rancher in the world,” said Johanns, responding to the call.

“But his point is a good one: We're not going to unilaterally disarm. And the president pointed out today that this is part of the WTO process, this is the challenge of those negotiations. The unfortunate part is, in many parts of the world the playing field is not very level.”

Another west Tennessee cotton farmer, David Templeton, identified himself as “one of those that are probably accused of getting some of these big payments.

“Several years ago, agriculture was in a bad situation,” he said. “Congress was authorizing duplicate payments to float farmers. They gave them the incentive to pass this farm bill that got us in a little bit better financial shape. And I think it would be foolish to back up from it.”

The higher payment limits in the current farm bill are essential, he said. “Every business in the country practically is getting larger. The family farm has had to get larger to compete. If we were to trim our payment limits, we have to downsize our farm operations. We would not be profitable.”

At times, the U.S. government has to take actions such as opening import quotas to governments that provide access to U.S. military forces. “I'm not criticizing the government for it. But as long as the government is doing things that have a negative effect on farmers, we need these subsidies to keep us in the game.”

Ray Young, a row crop and cattle farmer and agricultural consultant from Wisner, La., noted that agriculture was in a recession until Congress passed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

“This country did not arrive at being the producer of the most affordable, the safest, and abundant food supply in the world accidentally,” he said. “Farm programs through the years have kept agriculture in this country viable. They brought us through the Depression and they have carried us to the point where we are today, the envy of the world.

“I don't know of a farm bill that has enabled us to be more competitive than the current farm bill. So I agree with the gentleman a while ago, if it's not broke let's don't fix it.

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