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Terrorist attacks impact farm policy development

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

The events of Sept. 11 dramatically changed the nation’s policy, budget and presidential priorities. Once a front burner issue for many lawmakers, adoption of a farm bill has receded to the backstage in deference to more pressing issues. Yet some discussion on the subject has taken place since the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Even before the attacks, federal budget figures showed a shrinking budget surplus, limiting the capacity for spending on entitlement programs, such as agriculture. The House Agriculture Committee, anticipating less funding, had attempted to push through its farm bill before the new budget figures were announced.

Unfortunately, the House Agriculture Committee proposal is a continuation of the disastrous policy enacted in the 1996 farm bill. Despite criticism of the current farm policy for subsidizing the largest farms at the expense of smaller ones, the House version would further distort this inequity.

The week following the terrorist attacks, many Washington insiders assumed that passage of a farm bill would be put on the back burner in lieu of the more pressing issues of defense, intelligence enhancement and an energy package. Many thought a farm bill would not be passed for another year since the current farm bill does not expire until the end of fiscal year 2002. At press time, the latest thinking of many of these same insiders is that Congress will hurriedly pass a farm bill in order to move on to the more pressing issues of national security.

While all would agree that Sept. 11 changed the focus and priorities of federal policy makers for a long time to come, a “hurry up” approach to farm policy is not in the best interest of family farmers and ranchers.

In many respects, the House Agriculture Committee bill is such a policy. Members of the committee preferred to push through a flawed program rather than spend the time and energy necessary to examine other options. They were unwilling to risk waking a sleeping dog.

Another potential problem facing authors of the next farm bill is international trade rules. The United States committed under the World Trade Organization to spend no more than $19.1 billion per year on “trade-distorting” farm subsidies, under which fall the category of crop price supports.

This trade restriction, along with a greater emphasis on defense and a shrinking budget surplus should bode well for the Farmers Union proposal, which is one of the lower overall cost proposals. The Farmers Union plan offers generous increases in per-bushel loan rate levels but gets its cost savings by capping total payments to individual producers. This would not be popular with institutional recipients and mega-farms that have received tens of thousands in federal farm support since enactment of the 1996 farm bill.

The Bush administration Sept. 19, released a report that outlined it agricultural priorities. On the positive side, the report identified the need for a “safety net” and promotion of “sustainable prosperity.” It also noted that conservation of farmland, development of renewable energy sources, and delivery of food assistance to low-income families are priorities. However, the report failed to mention problems for consumers and producers created by consolidation in the food processing and grocery sectors.

In addition, the report mentions “expanded export market opportunities for farmers.” While Rocky Mountain Farmers Union certainly supports expanded export opportunities, the reality is that neither lower domestic prices nor increased trade volumes have resulted in increasing the producer’s bottom line.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union through its affiliation with National Farmers Union will continue to monitor federal farm policy developments. We will provide you with as much information as possible and invite you to participate by making your wishes known to members of Congress. Stay tuned!