Farm groups call for farm bill extension - with a little tweaking

Leaders of the major U.S. farm organizations have told the House Agriculture Committee they support the 2002 farm bill and favor extending the law as is until a final WTO agreement is in place.

Some farm group presidents, meanwhile, said they would like to “build on the farm bill’s strengths” by adjusting various provisions of the law. And the National Corn Growers Association asked for consideration of a new revenue assurance proposal its public policy team has been developing.

But Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman told the committee that simply extending the current farm bill would “provide U.S. trade representatives the strongest negotiating leverage” if the WTO’s Doha Round talks are resumed later this year.

“The outcome of the negotiations, particularly as they relate to domestic support commitments, must be known and taken into account before we begin crafting a new farm bill,” Stallman said in remarks prepared for the committee, which was conducting a review of U.S. farm policy.

If Congress reduces domestic supports — as the Bush administration has proposed — “we have less leverage to use to convince other countries to reduce their tariffs and export subsidies,” he said. “Our strongest negotiating leverage is to maintain our current programs until we agree to a WTO round that is beneficial for agriculture.”

“The 2002 farm bill enjoys considerable support among cotton producers,” said Allen Helms, chairman of the National Cotton Council and a cotton producer and ginner from Clarkedale, Ark. “Over the past six years, no farm organization has called for major modification of current law nor has Congress approved any major changes.”

“The farm safety net provided in the commodity title of the 2002 farm bill is considered a critical component of most producers’ risk management plans,” said Gerald Tumbleson, president of the National Corn Growers Association. “The changes in farm support programs adopted in May 2002 have proven to be more effective in delivering assistance to farmers when it is most needed.”

But Tumbleson said the NCGA has noted a serious flaw or “hole” in the safety net provided by the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

“For producers who have sustained large crop losses or repetitive years of shallow losses during the recent years of record harvests and low prices, the combined support of direct payments, marketing loan deficiency payments and counter-cyclical payments have provided insufficient income protection,” even with crop insurance coverage, he said.

“Secondly, growers who have found themselves in isolated areas of drought or other adverse weather conditions and unable to fully benefit from higher market prices cannot look to counter-cyclical payments to lessen the impact of lost income and the drain on their financial assets.”

The American Soybean Association’s John Hoffman said ASA supports the basic structure of farm programs under the 2002 farm bill, but believes adjustments are needed in oilseed support levels in the event these programs are reauthorized.

“Global demand for protein meal for animal feed and for vegetable oil is growing rapidly, and we are seeing a sharp increase in the use of vegetable oils for production of biodiesel,” said Hoffman, a farmer from Waterloo, Iowa. “U.S. oilseed producers need to be able to respond to these market signals.”

Paul T. Combs, chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers Group and a farmer from Kennett, Mo., said writing a new farm bill before the signing of a new Doha Round trade agreement could be counter-productive.

Both Combs and Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, reminded the committee members that the current farm programs have been a “fiscally responsible” approach to farm policy that has provided a safety net when needed, as Combs put it.

“Our members overwhelmingly believe the 2002 farm bill was a significant improvement over the previous law,” said Buis. “They also believe that writing a new farm bill at this time would not result in an improvement, but most likely a farm bill that would be a step back.

Referring to the dispute over tariffs — the issue which led to the collapse of the Doha Round in July — Stallman noted that U.S. agricultural exports face an average foreign tariff of 62 percent in the world’s markets. The figure is more than five times higher than the average U.S.-imposed agriculture tariff of 12 percent.

Additionally, the European Union uses 87 percent of the world’s export subsidies, which severely disadvantages U.S. exports. The United States utilizes only 3 percent and the rest of the world uses the remaining 10 percent.

“Farmers and ranchers are willing to lower farm program payments via WTO negotiations if — and only if — they can secure increased opportunities to sell their products overseas,” said Stallman. “However, we are not willing to unilaterally disarm.”

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