Farm policy debate presents challenges, opportunities

Most knowledgeable observers note that passage of the 2002 farm bill posed significant challenges for Congress, farmers and ranchers. But, according to an influential member of the House Agriculture Committee, developing the next farm bill may be an even more difficult process.

While addressing a conference at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 86th annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said the federal budget deficit poses the most formidable obstacle. The goal of reducing the deficit will make it hard to maintain funding for agricultural programs, and substantially less money might be authorized for the next farm bill.

“Unfortunately, many members of Congress do not see farming and ranching as something they are interested in,” Moran said. “We have an urban Congress that sees agricultural spending as the place where the budget can be cut.”

Such lawmakers have an “image of tremendous spending in agriculture,” he explained. But the current farm bill earmarks just 16 percent of its funding as payments to farmers. “Most of the money is for nutrition programs,” Moran said.

He urged farmers to collaborate on developing a clear explanation of why specific farm programs should be maintained. In addition, they must explain why a national farm policy that stabilizes food and fiber production benefits everyone.

“You have to say the same thing over and over until that message is received,” he added. “The best way to begin the explanation is by meeting with members of Congress who represent you.”

“All politics are personal,” Moran declared. “You can deliver the message by talking about where you come from, what you do for a living and how you put food on the table. It is a tremendous challenge.”

Moran, chairman of the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee, said the 2002 farm bill was developed when the federal budget contained a slight surplus. He said cuts must be made in farm spending in the next bill, as well as in other line items of the federal budget. He predicted that Congress will likely cut funding for traditional commodity programs, yet maintain or boost dollars targeted for conservation.

Moran accepts the legitimate overall purpose of reducing the budget deficit. “It is wrong to expect our children and our grandchildren to pay for things we are not willing to tax ourselves for,” he said.

Despite this laudable goal, cuts in farm spending probably won’t achieve much in balancing the budget. He noted that eliminating current farm programs, which distribute money to producers, would only cut $18 billion annually — barely a dent in the deficit.

The emergence of a world market has further complicated the process of devising a farm bill. “In certain circumstances, we are no longer the low-cost producer,” Moran said. Moreover, disputes over agricultural trade are inevitable. Current disagreements before the World Trade Organization only point toward change, he said.

So called “specialty crops,” such as fruits and vegetables, will likely be included in the new farm legislation. The addition will make the farm bill more complex. Finding an acceptable common policy among those producers could be a tough job, and cut “the pie into smaller pieces,” Moran added.

Federal crop insurance will probably be reformed as part of drafting the next farm bill, he said. “We have to make crop insurance a viable product for more commodities and more regions of the country,” he said. ”We must make crop insurance work in a less bureaucratic way.” The program must also be capable of functioning well during multiple-year disasters, he said.

Moran assured the audience that farmers and ranchers will have many opportunities to participate in the development of the new farm bill. When Congress begins discussing the 2007 bill later this year, its members will seek views from all farm groups.

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