Senate Ag Committee kicks 2012 Farm Bill process into faster gear

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 29, 2012 -A decision by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow to move up the two remaining scheduled farm bill hearings by a week reinforced reports that the Michigan Democrat intends to complete the panel's markup of new multi-year farm legislation before Congress begins a two-week Easter break on April 2.

Stabenow announced earlier this week that public hearings to receive testimony on the farm bill's nutrition and commodity titles originally planned for March 14 and 21, respectively, would be held on March 7 and March 14.

The accelerated hearing schedule is the latest sign that the committee is “serious about moving forward and that folks need to be prepared to move sooner rather than later,” a staff member said. The “folks” are farm and commodity groups who have failed so far to achieve consensus on

 Together we can feed the Bees

safety net features for a new farm bill.

Stabenow hoped to hear a “unified voice” from the groups, she told Agri-Pulse on Feb. 2 when asked to explain why the commodity title hearing was the last in the series of four to be held prior to marking up the bill. Their inability thus far to find common ground suggests that Stabenow has directed her committee “to proceed anyway and make our best judgments” about how to construct a new farm safety net with fewer federal dollars. Major farm groups are expected to meet again within the next two weeks to discuss their options.

That makes it all the more questionable whether a pair of eleventh-hour safety net ideas will receive serious consideration by the agriculture panel. One attempt, to capitalize on the popularity of the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills and the other options, envisions a GRIP-like program for rice. Some elements within the rice industry are talking up, but not endorsing - at least not yet

- a shallow-loss, area-wide revenue insurance program for rice patterned off the National Cotton

Council's Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX).

“Although many [rice] producers generally appear to be satisfied with the target price and revenue option programs developed by the Congressional Agriculture Committees for [last fall's failed deficit-reduction “super committee”], there are no guarantees that those options will survive any 2012 Farm Bill process,” the U.S. Rice Producers Association (USRPA) told its members last week. “Could a rice STAX program provide an effective safety net for rice producers?” USRPA asked while emphasizing it was not lobbying for the GRIP-like program.

The larger USA Rice Federation said it still prefers a safety net program that offers growers the option of target price or revenue protection.

Still, the mention of a third safety net option leaves the six-state rice industry “impressively

divided for this late” in the farm bill development process, a Hill source observed.

Rice interests in California want a shallow-loss revenue program with higher price guarantees and a state level trigger while stakeholders in the south are split with some favoring higher target prices and others willing to look at STAX as an alternative.

More intriguing, perhaps, is an idea from Iowa to hold onto Direct Payments and rename them Crop Assurance Certification Payments to make them more defensible to taxpayers.

Ron Heck, chairman of the Iowa Soybean Association's (ISA) farm bill task force and a past president of the American Soybean Association, thinks farm and commodity groups are “overlooking a fairly simple” solution to the budget challenge facing agriculture.

"You could do the math and see that cutting out Direct Payments and replacing half of them with Crop Certification Payments, and you would save a lot of money, maybe enough to meet your budget number,” Heck told Agri-Pulse. “So, it would be an awful lot like the program we have that everyone likes.”

The renamed payments would give farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere an incentive to signup for the next farm program, he explained, and would “certify for the country that you are following conservation compliance, that the land is available for agricultural production and you certify your acres to help in having yearly estimates of the food and fuel supply.  It just makes sense to me."

ISA hopes to receive a detailed analysis of the concept by mid-March. According to Heck, early feedback from the Senate has been encouraging, and he intends to discuss the idea with soybean farmers from other states at Commodity Classic this week in Nashville.

Asked if he thought it would pass muster with budget-cutting House Republicans, Heck said: “If it meets the budget goals, it doesn't mess up the WTO and keeps a popular program, I think the House will listen to that. It bolsters conservation and does a better job of describing to the

general public what agriculture does. I'm pretty comfortable talking about it and I think members of the House Ag Committee will be, too.”



Original story printed in February 29, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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