Alabama farmers visited with Washington leaders in early March to make their wishes known for the upcoming farm bill, which could affect what and how much they plant for the next 10 years.There are thousands of differences to be settled between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, but most Alabama leaders and the Bush administration, favor the House-passed bill. The House version, as with farm bills of the past, continues to focus much of its budget on traditional farm programs such as loan rates, counter cyclical payments and target prices.However, the Senate passed version of the farm bill spends most of the 10-year budget for the bill in the first five years of the program and focuses more on conservation and environmental issues as well as energy programs.Alabama Congressman Terry Everett, who serves as chairman of the specialty crop subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, has been appointed to the conference committee that will negotiate the differences between the House bill that was passed in October and the Senate bill that was passed in February.”It’s a shame that it took the Senate so long to pass its version of the bill, because we could already have 45 to 60 days of negotiations behind us,” Everett said. “However, I know that getting a bill passed quickly is important to our farmers, but the worst thing we could do is pass a bad farm bill that we’d have to live with for the next 10 years.”Everett said being on the conference committee allows Southeastern farmers to have a voice at the table during debate, but he added his was only one vote.”I’m real interested, of course, in southeast Alabama and in the new peanut title that we’ve labored over so long in the House,” Everett said. ” I wish we could have gotten to conference earlier because our producers need to know what is going to happen. Currently, they have no idea what they’re going to be operating under. That’s particularly critical for peanut farmers because their title has changed so drastically.”The 60-year old peanut program has been completely redone, and farmers need to know if they’re going to operate under a new program or the old program for another year, Everett said. If the conference committee can’t reach a compromise in a reasonable length of time, Congress can choose to extend the current farm bill through this crop season.”I’m concerned that we’re not going to move as rapidly as our producers would like for us to move, but we have to take it a day at a time,” Everett said. He would not speculate whether any decision between the House and Senate conference committees could be reached before Congress’ Easter recess.House Ag Committee Chairman Larry Combest, who also serves on the farm bill conference committee, spoke to Alabama farmers while they were in Washington. He said one of the hardest parts of reaching a compromise on the farm bill is pleasing farmers from different areas of the country.”Our goal is not to get a program done now, but to get a good program done. We don’t want to penalize one area of the country, nor do we want to favor one commodity over another,” said Combest, a congressman from Texas. “There are supporters of the Senate bill who think Southerners shouldn’t farm because they are a high risk. But that is where we live and what we do. It is an important part of our regional economy and the nation’s economy.”Everett said farming is very different in various areas of the country, which makes passing a farm bill to please all farmers more difficult. To farm 500 acres in the Southeast, a farmer might have to move his tractor five times, while a farmer in the Midwest can plow 500 acres and the only time he has to stop is to refuel, Everett said.Everett and others critical of the Senate-passed bill, said payment limitations in that bill will have to come out. Also, some leaders who support the House bill say the Senate bill frontloads too much of the farm bill’s budget in the first five years.”The Senate bill spends 65 percent of the money in the first five years of the 10-year farm bill,” Everett said, “but we can’t get down the road five years from now and not have any funding left.”The distribution of funds in the Senate bill also has been criticized by the Bush administration. Chuck Conner, who is the special assistant to the President for agricultural trade and food assistance for the National Economic Council in the White House, met with Alabama farmers during their annual Washington legislative trip. He said the president wants the farm bill conference committee to work quickly so that the program can be applied to the 2002 crop year.”To get there, we’ve got to settle the funding issue,” Conner said, “But the president doesn’t favor front-loading the bill.”Conner said the president and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will stay out of the farm bill debate, with the exception of four principals. The president doesn’t want a farm bill that stimulates over production by raising loan rates; he wants Congress to abide by the limits on subsidy payments that affect production; he wants conservation efforts that farmers can actually use on their land; and he wants to establish a farm savings account or risk management account that gives farmers the ability to manage their own risks.”The administration hopes the House bill is the working vehicle that will be used by the conference committee to get the farm bill done quickly,” Conner said.U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama agreed.”You have told me that there are several things in the bill that you don’t want,” Sessions told the Federation group. “Based on what I think most Alabama farmers want, I liked the House bill from the beginning and most of you told us you liked that version better.”Like the president, Sessions was opposed to the front-loaded Senate bill, and he said portions of the Senate bill would violate trade rules and obligations already adopted by Congress.Alabama Farmers Federation President Jerry Newby said it’s more important than ever that the conference committee work diligently to get the bill passed quickly.”After another year of low commodity prices, farmers desperately need something to look forward to,” Newby said. “A new farm bill with a guaranteed safety net to protect farmers when prices are low, could be just what the doctor ordered.”Alabama farmers also met with Jim Moseley, the deputy secretary of agriculture and Bill Hawks, the under secretary for marking and regulatory programs for USDA.Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby spoke to farmers during a luncheon on Capitol Hill where he told them he favors the House-passed version of the bill as well. Farmers also had several meetings with congressmen and staffers during the visit where, in addition to the farm bill, they discussed research funding for Alabama’s land grant universities.
Farm Bill Tops Agenda of Annual Legislative Trip