Sweeping Changes Will Happen in Next Farm Bill

Speakers at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference report drastic cuts in agricultural program funding could force massive policy changes.

Published on: Jul 25, 2011

The Gang of Six has $11 billion in agricultural program funding cuts in its negotiated offer to raise the debt ceiling. The Administration's proposal has $34 billion.

Whatever squeezes out by Aug. 2, the deadline to raise America's debt ceiling, will necessarily cause sweeping changes in U.S. farm policy.

"We could write a Farm Bill in the next 10 days," said Ben Mosley, legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

He was the fourth consecutive speaker on Saturday to give that message to the 585 peanut growers and allied industry registered at the 13th Annual Southern Peanut Growers Conference on Panama City Beach, Fla. He wasn't the last.

After Mosley, whose boss is one of the Gang of Six, American Farm Bureau's Mary Kay Thatcher and U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., prepared growers for sweeping changes, peanut lobbyist Bob Redding chimed in.

"This is a perfect storm, folks. We have high prices. We have bad weather. A lot of us don't have a crop. And the government is broke," Redding said. "This ride is going to get rough. It's not for anybody that has a weak stomach."

The total commodity portion of is 20% of the funding under the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, commonly known as the Farm Bill. That's $64 billion. Direct payments are $34 billion of that. Food and nutrition programs garner the other 80%.

"My fear is we're going to take such a hit in funding that farm policy will be revolutionary," Thatcher said. Thatcher is the director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau.

The problem with using a machete to make broad cuts to agricultural programs isn't the amount of money. It's who's doing it. And how quickly.

Few people in Congress know anything about how commodity programs work, Fincher said. Some ask the Tennessee cotton farmer if he's getting $2 a pound for his cotton. (No, he isn't.) Some tell him the commodity program has to go.

"I say: 'What part of the farm program do you not like?'" Fincher said. "And they says, 'I don't know anything about it, but it needs cutting."

Given the opportunity, Fincher wants a one-year extension to the current farm bill.

"I think we would probably be better served writing a new farm bill in Spring 2013," Fincher said, nothing that would push the legislation past the Presidential election in fall 2012.

"I'm afraid if we have to write a farm bill in 2012, it will be consumed by politics,' Fincher said.

That's the same scenario that could play out between now and Aug. 2.

Cuts with the debt ceiling agreement will be immediate, noted Jennifer Warren, the legislative director for U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.

"That means something that's going to be rushed through," she said.

Rushed through by people with no knowledge of the programs.

Referring to the Administration's proposal, Mosley said: "It's unfortunate that folks without an agricultural background would make cuts to a program they know nothing about."

Chambliss, on the other hand, has previously served as chairman and ranking member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He continues to serve on the committee, but exchanged his leadership to be vice-chairman on the more powerful Select Committee on Intelligence.

Other members of the Gang of Six are: Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho; Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.; and Mark Warner, D-Va. Conrad also serves on the Senate ag committee.

All of the speakers noted that the nation's debt is the most pressing issue for the country and that agriculture would do it's share – has been doing it's share, including $6 billion in savings from the crop insurance program.

At this point, Warren noted, 37 programs in the current farm bill have no baseline for funding. Most of those programs, Jennifer Warren said, address conservation and energy. Funding cuts already plowed through the National Peanut Laboratory in Dawson, Ga.

Ultimately, Thatcher suspects, the number of conservation programs will be narrowed to three or four and Average Crop Revenue Election and Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments programs may be combined. The latter is particularly problematic for Southern producers.

"ACRE doesn't work very well in this part of the country. SURE doesn't work very well in this part of the country," Thatcher said. "We've got to figure out a way to make these policies work better."
And that's a job for the next farm bill – whether it's written between now and Aug. 2 or in 2012.

When it's written, tradition dictates the U.S. House Agriculture Committee will be the author.

"At this moment the agreement on the debt limits is probably going to determine which direction the chairman (House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.) takes in the coming months," Warren said.