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Whittling away at the farmers’ safety net

Former President Gerald Ford once said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take everything you have.”

More and more farmers are feeling the ironic sting of this caution firsthand. Toward the end of February, we heard about President Obama’s proposal calling for the elimination of direct payments to large “agribusinesses,” which has drawn a strong reaction from members of Congress and some of the nation’s farm organizations.

Before that, and out of the blue, farmers who lease and farm federally-owned lands were told by USDA that their crop bases were being eliminated. For many of them, it starts now.

No doubt, the federal lands rule has raised emotion in farmers throughout the Delta, not because it affects a lot of farmers minimally, but because it impacts a few farmers substantially. And to me, that’s a major flaw of the rule.

First and foremost, the intent of the farm bill should be to equitably benefit every farmer within a specific commodity program. Taking subsidy payments away from one rice farmer because he leases federally-owned lands puts him at a competitive disadvantage to another rice farmer who does not lease and farm federal lands. We can argue the merits of subsidies until we’re blue in the face, but the fact remains, if they are dispensed, they need to be dispensed as equitably as possible among farmers.

The action “undercuts the congressionally mandated income safety net for farmers by removing that safety net from those farmers that happen to rent cropland owned by the federal government,” wrote Bill Gillon, general counsel for the National Cotton Council, on his Web site. “It devalues land owned by the federal government, makes it difficult for such land to be put into productive use, will remove conservation requirements applicable to such land if operated under farm programs, and unfairly and unreasonably targets farmers who rent and farm federal land.

“The Department of Agriculture provided no rationale for this step, cited no authority, provided no opportunity for comment, and provided no analysis concerning the potential impact of this action. It is without precedent that crop acreage base operated by farmers for many, many years would be suddenly terminated without regard to the impact on farms and individual farming operations.”

Members of Congress are listening to farmers concerned about the rule.

Noted Hunter Moorhead, a staffer with Sen. Thad Cochran R-Miss., “Sen. Cochran’s office is working with USDA and urges the department to reconsider this farm policy decision. At a time of economic uncertainty, this farm policy decision could greatly impact local economies if cropland sits idle.”

But they’ve got their work cut out for them.

President Obama is attacking agriculture on another front. In his budget recommendations for fiscal 2010, the president is asking Congress to end direct payments to large farming operations, reduce subsidies for federal crop insurance programs and eliminate storage payments on cotton.

The proposal also calls for phasing out farm program payments to growers with incomes of more than $500,000 over a three-year period, eliminating funding for the Resource Conservation and Development Program and a 20 percent reduction in USDA Market Access Promotion program funding.

Government may have given up the axe as tool for cutting farm programs, but have gone to the chisel to just as effectively whittle away the farmers’ safety net.

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TAGS: Legislative
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