Farm Bill Could Come Within Three Weeks

With spring break coming, it may be 'now or never' on a brand-new farm bill

Published on: Feb 20, 2008

The long awaited "2007"—now 2008 Farm Bill—could come within about three weeks.

That was the word from National Cotton Council (NCC) Chairman Larry McClendon of Marianna, Arkansas as keynote speaker to the annual meeting of the 31-county Rolling Plains Cotton Growers in Abilene, Texas Tuesday, Feb. 19.

It's not a done deal, but if the U.S. Senate and House can come together with something suitable to both sides in conference committee, then a new farm bill could emerge before March 15, when the latest extension of the old 2007 bill expires, he said.

But he noted even with a new farm bill, the U.S. must hold its ground on international trade accords.

"We worked vigorously toward a new farm bill the last two years," McClendon said. "But if we have a poor WTO (World Trade Organization) Doha agreement, it would undermine any farm bill we might achieve."

McClendon said the NCC has sent 8 letters to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) office in recent months, noting market access to China must be addressed in any trade agreement. The Council leader noted some West African nations still remain intent on dismantling the U.S. cotton program.

Meanwhile, U.S. Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) of Amarillo, told the cotton group he agrees a 2008 farm bill is still possible before March 15, not only when current extension expires, but before Congress takes a 2-week break then.

Thornberry wants to see a new farm bill—a lot like the 2002 Farm Bill crafted in bi-partisan spirit by former U.S. Congressmen from Texas, Larry Combest, a Lubbock Republican, and Charles Stenholm, a Democrat from Ericksdahl. He noted the current bill was worked well. He said if he had his wish—a new farm bill would be for 10 years so growers would have a longer handle on future policy.

But if it has to be an extension, Thornberry said he would favor a 5-year extension. He does not want just a 1-year extension, because as it expired with a new administration in 2009, the whole long process would have to start again.

U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) has said he might revert to the 1949 Permanent Farm Law, if Congress remains in gridlock. But Thornberry said he doesn't really expect that to happen. That would be a nightmare for county USDA Farm Service Agency offices to implement.

If Congress does pass a brand-new 2008 Farm Bill before spring recess, President Bush has threatened to veto it, if not to the Administration's liking. Thornberry said if Bush vetoes a good bill, which has support in both houses of Congress, then lawmakers on Capitol Hill might be able to override the Bush veto.

NCC President McClendon said the Council leadership has met with new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer during the past two weeks, and has found Schafer to be very personable. He said the meetings went well.

As a highlight of the annual meeting, the RPCG presented veteran Texas AgriLife Extension Agronomist Dr. Billy Warrick of San Angelo with its "Rolling Plains Cotton Growers Agricultural Appreciation Award."

In addition to McClendon, to former NCC chairmen in Herman Propst of Anson, Texas and Woody Anderson of Colorado City, Texas, were on hand.

The biggest complaint by growers in the meeting—beyond not having a farm bill—clearly was the skyrocketing price of both farm-diesel fuel and fertilizer for this upcoming growing season.

But the cotton price outlook is relatively strong. Dr. Jackie Smith, Texas A&M economist, Lubbock, said the strong prices for grain crops has been propping up cotton prices, as many cotton growers are expected to plant other crops like corn, wheat, and sorghum. He said he's certain U.S. cotton acreage will be cut sharply this season—plus the likelihood of making an enormous bumper crop in yields like 2007 also is unlikely two years in a row.

He said December 2008 futures contracts have been at about 76 to 78 cents per pound in recent days. Smith would expect some growers to book take advantage of prices and book at least some cotton if prices move into the 80s on local contracts.