AFBF's Stallman: Time to move ‘beyond the policies of the past'

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 1, 2012 -The head of the largest U.S. farm organization was direct and to the point in a speech Tuesday to Mississippi Delta farmers: the days of Washington sending row-crop growers a yearly subsidy check are over.

“Unfortunately, too many times in farm policy we tend to look to the past,” asserted Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, “because we kinda liked what we had in the past. But that was in a totally different environment than we face today.”

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With the federal government drowning in red ink, Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Texas, told attendees at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, Miss., the 2012 Farm Bill debate is sure to be the most challenging reauthorization of U.S. farm policy in at least a quarter-century.

“Everything that will happen, in terms of which program and what choices are made, is going to be driven by the budget ‑ budget, budget, budget!” he repeated for emphasis.

As Stallman spoke, producer-leaders of a dozen major farm and commodity groups huddled in the nation's capital in a bid to reconcile their very public differences over safety net priorities for new farm legislation.

“Our allies on Capitol Hill are doing all they can, I think, to fight for what's important for agriculture, but it's really a disservice to them if those of us they're trying to protect are not united and trying to pull in the same general direction,” Reece Langley, vice president of government affairs at the USA Rice Federation, which organized the gathering, told Agri-Pulse in the run-up to the meeting.

One small step toward that end, perhaps, was a collective decision at the outset not to divulge to reporters details of what was said during Tuesday afternoon's session, which featured updates from senior Senate and House Ag Committee aides on the congressional timeline for writing the next farm bill. It is anticipated that the Senate Ag panel will begin in Feb. 15 with a series of hearings likely to stretch into April. 

The ag groups were scheduled to hold another session Wednesday morning, focused on trying to find common ground, and may issue a joint statement at the conclusion.

Almost all of the safety net ideas currently being discussed emphasize the use of crop insurance and other risk management programs, primarily some form of revenue-loss protection for individual farms.

AFBF, according to Stallman, wants “to move beyond the policies of the past” with its proposal for deep-loss revenue protection, crop insurance and continuation of the marketing assistance loan program.

“Granted, our policy does not set up a system where farmers get a check almost every year,” he acknowledged, “and philosophically we're saying that should not be the role of government, and frankly, the political and social will to continue to do that is diminishing.”

Stallman's aggressive, at times biting, tone in the MidSouth was not a surprise.  Its growers have historically counted on government price supports for a larger share of earnings than their Midwest cousins and have expressed the most resistance to calls for the elimination of traditional farm programs in the next farm bill.

Stallman also referenced their skepticism, generally, of the value of risk management tools, noting that he always hears that crop insurance “just doesn't work for us” in the South.

“I keep asking why?  And in essence, the answer that comes back is, ‘We pay these premiums but we don't get that much back every year,'” he said. “That's not what risk management is all about.”

Asked by an audience member if he thought new farm legislation would contain higher loan rates, Stallman replied it depends on how much funding is available. He then added if the rates are increased, “it's probably not going to be upward high enough to satisfy those of you in this room.”



Original story printed in February 1, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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