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Farm bill comes to front burner in Washington

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Ask anyone inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway, and they will tell you the next farm bill is—even now—the biggest agricultural topic being discussed.

Writing of the next farm bill must be completed and ratified by Congress by the end of the 2002 crop year. If this is not accomplished, as was the case for the last (1995/96) farm bill, Congress would have to vote to continue the current law until a new one is passed. The 1995 farm bill actually was passed months beyond its “deadline,” thus it is actually the 1996 farm bill. The delay made it extremely difficult for producers to make good decisions for the 1996 planting season.

The Republic Party lost its Senate chairmanships earlier this year when a GOP defection caused Democrats to gain a majority in the Senate.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the new chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been supportive of Farmers Union proposals in the past. He is well acquainted with the obstacles facing today’s independent producers, as well as with the failure of the current farm bill to overcome these obstacles.

While the Republican-led U.S. House is expected to produce a very different sort of farm bill from the one put together by the Democratic Senate, leadership from both parties agree—albeit reluctantly by some—that the 1996 “freedom to farm” policy cost too much and failed to accomplish the goal of ending farm subsidies. Most feel it unlikely the current law will be continued as is. The fighting will come when considering how it should be changed.

According to a recent New York Times article, under the 1996 farm bill, 10 percent of U.S. farmers received 61 percent of all farm program subsidies. A large producer who was profiled in the story saw payments go from $164,621 in 1996 to $741,839 in 1999. Such publicity is good neither for politicians who passed the last farm bill, nor for proponents of sensible farm programs.

This is one reason that Farmers Union, through its national government office in Washington, D.C., has taken a proactive approach on the next farm bill. National Farmers Union (NFU) worked with a team of well-respected government consultants and economists to write a farm bill proposal. The proposal, at press time, is being “scored,” which means that economists are using economic data from various farms and weighing in a variety of weather and other market scenarios in order to establish high and low estimates for the government’s cost to implement the proposal.

Initial estimates show that the Farmers Union farm bill proposal is the lowest cost proposal of all the proposals offered by the major national farm organizations. The proposal’s primary goal is to assure that family producers receive from their commodities the cost of production plus a reasonable profit. The price tag is modest because safety net benefits are limited to the number of acres in a family-sized operation. The farmer profiled in the New York Times article mentioned previously would receive benefits similar in amount to a farmer much smaller than he.

“The National Farmers Union proposal does not eliminate benefits to large and mega-sized producers,” said NFU President Leland Swenson. “It simply says that federal farm programs will provide a safety net up to a level of a typical, full-time family operation but that any production beyond that level is at the risk of the producer.”

The NFU proposal would continue planting flexibility, discontinue “flexibility” payments, increase commodity loan rates, tighten payment limits, and restore both grain reserves and set-aside payments. The plan also encourages the renewable fuel industry and addresses market concentration. More details will appear in this publication, likely in the Sept/Oct edition, once the detailed proposal is scored and released to RMFU.

Swenson met May 6 with RMFU’s Farm Bill Working Group to explain the NFU plan and to get feedback from members of the group. Swenson told the RMFU group that NFU had acquired commitments from both Democrats and Republicans to work together in drafting a farm bill. The NFU president reported a high level of interest among lawmakers in the NFU draft proposal.

“I think it is a good sign that Congress recognizes problems with the current farm bill and that it is expressing interest in other models,” Swenson said.

“I believe the NFU program is headed in the right direction,” said RMFU president Dave Carter. “The purpose of the RMFU working group is to analyze it and to make recommendations, particularly in regard to the commodities and issues that are specific to this region.”

Plans are for the RMFU group to make recommendations prior to NFU’s September fly-in to Washington, D.C.

RMFU members are encouraged to become involved in the farm bill debate by mailing, faxing or e-mailing (see page 2 for addresses/fax number) comments and specific suggests to the RMFU office, attention Farm Bill Recommendations. In addition, the next farm bill has been established as a primary topic at the upcoming 2001 RMFU convention, Nov. 16-17, in Pueblo, Colo. Comments will be compiled, policy drafted and an RMFU farm bill “platform” established.