Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns is serious about getting information from growers about a range of issues, especially in an effort to craft a new farm bill that takes into account a changing business. During Husker Harvest Days near Grand Island, Neb., Thursday, he got a range of input from cash grain and livestock producers from the region. And as always, Johanns studiously took notes to be included as part of his effort to be very involved in the process when Congress addresses the issue next year.
As Ag Secretary Mike Johanns took notes, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (left); and moderator Emery Kleven, farm director for Waitt Farm Network, listened to testimony at Thursday's Farm Bill Forum.
Since Johanns was governor of Nebraska he hasn't been in the state but for a couple of vary short visits, but this week he spent a lot of time at Husker Harvest Days - a long-time streak he jokes about keeping up noting he "might have to come up with a reason to come back next year." He spent time on the show grounds ahead of the Farm Bill Forum, visiting a few locations at the site, catching a few interviews along the way.
But the meat of the day was the Farm Bill Forum, on in a series of events Johanns initiated in Tennessee in July, and he says they'll continue through 2005. "We're learning a great deal from these sessions and the President supports this effort," Johanns told the crowd of about 600 on hand for the Nebraska event. Johanns has said his agency would be involved in the crafting of the next farm bill, perhaps going as far as submitting a bill to Congress, as part of the process toward crafting the 2007 effort.
About 600 people were on hand for the Farm Bill Forum at Husker Harvest Days, and they heard testimony on a wide range of issues including payment limits, conservation, country-of-origin labeling and other programs.
During the show, those offering testimony asked that the Secretary consider more support for young farmers and ranchers, consider instituting payment limits to make sure a few large farmers don't get most of the money, and put country of origin labeling to work for the country's livestock producers. Noted one strong advocate for COOL: "You know where your underwear comes from, but you can't tell where your beef is from."
Payment limits on the table
Johanns notes that the payment limits discussion is a key issue. "I know that in the Midwest I'm going to hear a lot of support for payment limits," he says. "But in a forum in the South I would hear a different story completely." Cotton producers oppose any limits to government payments.
Growers testifying at the Nebraska forum commented that there was no need for programs to have such a disparity in payments, with some larger growers getting big checks from the government.
Country of origin labeling
As for COOL, Johanns notes this is a mandatory program that's part of the 2002 Farm Bill that's been postponed until September 2006. "And I want people to remember it's mandatory," he says. "When it is put into effect there will be no choice but to follow those rules. Some will cheer that news and some won't"
Johanns notes that the mandatory reporting of country of origin labeling may have trade implications that even cow-calf producers wouldn't like. "My observation is that we're in an international market exporting 27% of our agricultural goods, and there is never an action that doesn't have a consequence, or a reaction," he says.
He adds that voluntary programs are already going up - such as Nebraska corn fed beef, and others - that provide a defacto label of origin for the consumer.
Conservation has been a popular item of conversation at the forums. Johanns noted that he heard the concerns raised. Some testifying note that to take part in some programs its necessary to tear up existing structures. They expressed a desire to be part of a conservation program that rewards existing practices, noting a need to expand the Conservation Security Program.
Current events and the forum
There's a period during these forums when testimony can be taken on broader issues for the Secretary to hear. And current issues colored those comments this week.
When that first four-hour forum was conducted in Tennessee, fuel prices were on the rise, but not a huge worry for producers. This event was conducted under the shadow of Hurricane Katrina and all its market impacts. Skyrocketing costs and very low crop prices were a driving force in many comments with producers wondering how they can keep going.
Add in rising land prices, due to such factors as 1031 exchanges (an area one person noted should be revisited) and some making comments asked the Secretary to look at all these issues for the new Farm Bill. "When we first started these forums we heard the comment 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But we didn't here that in today's forum," he says.
One cooperative manager notes that the loss of the Port of New Orleans and super high freight rates were a serious concern that needed immediate attention. He wondered if double-trailered truck rigs couldnâ€™t be used to bypass the limited rail and lack of barge availability for a short time. He noted that rail cars that could be had for $350 recently were now only available for $1,500 - a problem that could plague the current harvest.