Farm bill proposals taking shape

When light hits a mood ring, its color changes. When trade agreements and budget pressures shine on the farm bill, the color could change as well.

More than a year away from farm bill negotiations, an interesting right-left alliance is developing to bring the focus toward agricultural programs that shy away from amber and blue boxes and draw the spotlight to a green box, which would include conservation programs. It involves groups ranging from producers to environmentalists to conservationists.

Joe Glauber, an economist at the USDA's Office of the Chief Economist, looks back to the negotiations surrounding the 1996 farm legislation when “WTO implications of freedom to farm weren't discussed.” The bill provided farmers with flexibility and kept price support outlays at low levels. That changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s when spending increased near the $19 billion limit.

“For the next farm bill, we have to see reductions in marketing loans and subsidies,” Glauber says. “The modification must be made in programs not tied” to amber and blue boxes and instead focus on “green box maintenance which will allow a lot of room to shape the farm bill.”

Virginia Tech economist David Orden has offered a plan that would buy out farm programs.

Many point to the need for a transition for farmers during the change.

“We need a transition to a more sustainable system, one the public will support, by shifting from a commodity-based system to a stewardship-based program,” Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust (AFT), told a group of reporters at a meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists held recently in Washington, D.C.

“U.S. farm policy is not working for all of U.S. agriculture,” Grossi says.

A change will involve a “significant reallocation of dollars away from production programs to conservation,” Grossi says.

Far from being radical, Grossi says it would help garner public support for farm programs. “Current farm policy seems disconnected from current public values.”

AFT is focusing on four areas in its push for reform: developing and refining alternatives; creating a diverse alliance across the political spectrum; cultivating new congressional champions; and publicizing farm policy failures and benefits of reform.

“There's a long-term trend toward freer trade and away from subsidized crops,” Grossi says.

A former California dairyman, Grossi sees a “train wreck in the making” if U.S. farm policy isn't reformed. In a different budgetary era, farm policy might not be as critical, but he says with budget deficits, farm spending will require “fiscal discipline.”

He called also for transparency. “We know where the money for subsidies go and we know who gets it,” Grossi says. “In the eyes of the public, it's hard to see why. In the farm community, it's hard to explain.

“These are not contemporary arguments,” Grossi says. “Other farmers know who's getting the payments. It's begun to create anxiety, particularly when other sectors have unmet needs.”

Those “unmet needs,” Grossi says, include research, Extension and conservation. “Three out of four farmers are turned down for conservation programs because of under-funding.”

Grossi says the idea of reform is gaining momentum. While there are differences of opinion regarding “transition,” there appears to be “a lot of ideas percolating for a different type of support mechanism.

“A new kind of farm policy could emerge,” Grossi says.

“We believe there is support for change among cattle ranchers, specialty growers, and urban-edge farmers,” as well as others, Grossi says.

By pursuing reform, Grossi believes agriculture could also “broaden public support of farm policy.

“I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a fundamental shift in public policy that will impact millions of lives and the rural landscape as we know it today,” Grossi says. “I don't want to be sitting here five years from now and saying we didn't do all we could to seize this opportunity.”

USDA's Glauber likens farm legislation and trade negotiations to two moving aircraft carriers.

“It boils down to timing to get them moving in the same direction to meet the goals of producers, budgetary concerns and trade agreements,” Glauber says.

“The train of thought is not to disarm unilaterally,” says the USDA economist.

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