Southern ag stakes out policy territory in upcoming farm bill debate

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2012 -Southern farm interests and their champions on Capitol Hill put the rest of U.S. agriculture on notice at the end of last week that they won't play second fiddle to the Midwest during the drafting of a new farm bill. In remarks to the annual meeting of Lubbock, Texas-based Plains Cotton Growers Inc., Mark Lange, president and CEO of the National Cotton Council, said the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have a difficult job ahead of them - a task made more complicated by the lack of consensus among commodity groups on safety net provisions. And he put the blame squarely on corn and soybeans.

“They're trying to take the money that's in the baseline for rice, peanuts and cotton in order to enrich their revenue programs,” Lange said.

“If they think we're just going to roll over and say, ‘Oh yeah, that's fair,' I don't think so… As long as the grains and oilseeds are going to try to steal several hundreds of millions of dollars annually in support from rice, peanuts and cotton, we're not going to speak with a single voice. Not going to happen!” 

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Lange drew his line in the sand on the same day that farmers from six southern states implored the House Agriculture Committee at a field hearing in Jonesboro, Ark., to reject a “one-size-fits-all” approach to risk management when it drafts the next farm bill. Eight of the ten witnesses were multi-row crop producers.

“Farm programs should take into consideration commodity and regional differences,” said Randy Veach, president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Asked by Chairman Frank Lucas why the organization dissented from American Farm Bureau Federation policy in support of “deep-loss” revenue protection, Veach responded “That just really doesn't work for some of our commodities.”

Forcing all farmers into a revenue program would amount to “picking winners and losers,” testified Missouri Bootheel grower and implement dealer Paul Combs. “Revenue protection without some minimum price protection . . . would repeat the grave mistakes of the past if we see prolonged periods of low prices.” With cotton as his primary focus, Alabama farmer Walt Corcoran touted the NCC's Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX). “In the opinion of the U.S. cotton industry, [STAX] will best utilize reduced budget resources, respond to public criticism by directing benefits to growers who suffer losses resulting from factors beyond their control, and build on the existing crop insurance program, thus ensuring no duplication of coverage.”

GOP freshman Rick Crawford hosted the hearing and told Agri-Pulse afterward that he's confident that Mid-South agriculture will have a voice in the Farm Bill reauthorization. “The last several farm bills have had a Midwestern flavor and kind of a cookie-cutter approach largely centered around crop insurance and things that work for Midwest production but don't work necessarily for Mid-South production,” Crawford observed.

In addition to Crawford and Lucas, Republicans Randy Neugebauer of Texas, who pitched his GRIP-like insurance add-on to existing yield and revenue policies, called the Total Crop Option, and Marlin Stutzman, R- Ind, also took part in the hearing. Stutzman, a budget hawk who supports limited government intervention, said he learned a lot about southern farmers.

“Absolutely,” he replied without hesitation when asked if he favored giving them a menu of safety net choices in new farm legislation. “Maybe the Direct Payment needs to stick around a little bit longer for rice than it does for corn, soybeans and other crops. . . . That's an option we should talk about,” Stutzman said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee, meanwhile, plans to write its version of the farm bill the week of April 23rd. Democratic and Republican staffers on the committee are spending the two-week Easter recess trying to hammer out an agreement on the bill's safety net provisions that can win the support of virtually the entire 21-member panel. It's believed that's the only way Majority Leader Reid will agree to bring a farm bill to the Senate floor this year.

Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia ‑ the top committee Republican during the 2008 Farm Bill debate ‑ Thad Cochran of Mississippi and John Boozman, of Arkansas, and seven southern colleagues penned a bipartisan letter to Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, urging the development of equitable farm policy.

“It is our hope the new farm legislation offers producers options, including a price-based counter-cyclical program; a revenue-based program with a reference price; and, for cotton, an insurance based shallow-loss revenue program to establish a basis to resolve the World Trade Organization Brazil case,” the senators wrote.

In an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse, Chambliss indicated that southern growers had finally come to the realization that “major changes” in farm programs, primarily driven by tight budgets, were inevitable. “The STAX program that's being proposed for cotton is significantly different than anything we've ever done and while it mirrors the crop insurance program, it's still not what they are used to,” he said.

Even though they don't have one of their own serving in a leadership position on the committee, Chambliss said farmers in the Deep South can count on Roberts, a Kansan, to pay attention to their views. “The good news for cotton folks is that Pat Roberts' state, I think, is the fifth-largest producer of cotton now, and certainly is he very cognizant of the peanut program because of my very close relationship with him over the years.” A big concern for Chambliss as it relates to enacting a farm bill this year is that the Senate version will have to build a safety net knowing the bill must achieve $23 billion in budget savings. The House version will likely work with less after expected cuts of 30 billion or more.

“If they're at 33 and we're at 23 that's a significant difference” and, depending on how Farm Bill conferees split the difference, could jeopardize final passage of the bill, he suggested.


Original story printed in April 4th, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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