Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Western response optimistic to proposed Farm Bill, although cuts still being examined

At first reaction, the agricultural community — particularly in the West — was positive about what Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns outlined for the 2007 Farm Bill.

Considered the diversity of geography and commodities in the country, it’s remarkable that any Farm Bill can get a favorable response from across the country.

The tendency in the past was some areas, such as Western specialty crop growers, were left out when farm programs were being developed.

As usual, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton remain the biggest winners when it comes to continued subsidy payments proposed by the Farm Bill. While some of those crops are grown in the West, it’s generally the Midwest and Southern states that benefit the most from the Farm Bill programs.

However, thank the patient, steady lobbying efforts of farm and commodity organizations in the West for the inclusion of specialty crops in this version of the Farm Bill. Whenever they have had the chance, they have stressed how important this was to farmers here.

Johanns agreed: almost $5 billion has been committed to research, marketing programs and trade expansion for those specialty crops.

Western Growers spokesman Tim Chelling summarized the reaction of a lot of vegetable and fruit growers: “We’re extremely pleased with this kind of recognition of this portion of American agriculture, which is roughly half of U.S. crop agriculture. Finally the government and the Farm Bill recognizes the place of specialty crop agriculture in the nation’s agriculture policy, and that alone is a significant milestone.”

The other areas that Westerners looked at as priorities for more money included conservation, and resources to support farm trade and fight international trade barriers. Johanns came through on those, too: $7.8 billion for conservation, and $400 million regarding the trade issues.

Farmers also wanted a commitment to biomass research, the development of ethanol, and renewable energy, and the Farm Bill included proposals in those areas.
The agricultural community will be still digesting all the details of the Farm Bill, especially since Johanns said farm spending would be reduced by $18 billion over the next five years. The farm programs part of the proposed 2007 Farm Bill would cost $87.3 billion over 5 years, according to Johanns. This is down from $105 billion for the programs in the 2002 Farm Bill.

The main change appears to be that subsidy payments will be limited to those who make less than $200,000 in adjusted gross income annually. That’s down from the current income cap of $2.5 million, and would impact 80,000 producers who collect about 4.5 percent of overall farm payments in the country. Johanns estimated this would save about $1.5 billion in the next decade.

However, farmers will be looking carefully where the other billions of dollars will be saved and how it will impact them personally.
As late as a day before Johanns made his announcement, a broad coalition of about 100 groups that included the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, but also just about every national organization representing crops, fruits and vegetables, nurseries, viticulture, dairy, and even banks united to formally ask that farm bill spending be increased.

In their letter to the Senate and House Budget Committees, they wrote “Given the cuts agricultural programs have already sustained over the last several years, and the substantial savings as a result of farm bill programs, we ask that you adopt mandatory and discretionary spending levels that provide for additional funding and resist efforts to force further budget reductions on agricultural, food assistance, conservation and other critical programs.”

Whether that coalition will stay united and support Johann’s proposals remains to be seen.

Whenever a new Farm Bill is introduced, questions arise from the public on why should there be support for farmers in the first place.

This year, one of the strongest arguments came just before Johanns made his announcement.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service released its statistics that American families and individuals currently spend an average of just under 10 percent of their disposable personal income for food: in other words, an average household can pay for its full year of food with its disposable income after about 36 days of employment.

“Compared to food, Americans work longer each year to pay for their housing, federal taxes and medical care,” said Anne Rigor, Chair of the Oregon Farm Bureau Women’s Advisory Council, in a press release. The Oregon Farm Bureau is marking Feb. 4-10, 2007, as Food Check-Out Week to help people understand and celebrate the affordable, healthy and safe food that farmers produce in this country.

“According to the Tax Foundation, Americans must work 52 days each year to pay for health and medical care, 62 days to pay for housing/household operation and 77 days to pay their federal taxes,” said the release.

The public benefits when farmers and ranchers can afford to stay on the land and expect income support when they need it, whether it’s from weather disasters or international trade disputes, as well as support for rural development.

While debate continues on what should be in the final Farm Bill to be adopted later this year, Johanns made some good steps to ensure Western farmers feel more respected and protected in what they do for the nation.

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