After the disasters of the last several years, leaders of various agriculture groups have learned to be skittish in predicting any kind of immediate, positive acceleration in U.S. farmers' collective fortune. And at the opening press conference of the annual Farm Bureau meeting in Orlando, Fla., Bob Stallman - the president of the organization - didn't buck the trend.
The year 2000, he said, was another challenging year for America's farmers and ranchers.
"Segments of our industry experienced minor recovery, but for the most part producers found the going very tough. This year promises to be a busy time for agriculture - particularly for those in Washington, D.C., whose focus is on agricultural policy. We look forward to working with the new administration and believe many of the items on President Bush's agenda will, if Congress cooperates, benefit farmers and ranchers. In particular, his promise to cut taxes, reduce regulations and open new export markets for our farm goods."
Stallman said congressional leaders have pledged to get a jump start on the next farm bill. Numerous plans and ideas have been floated already and many more are to come.
"I firmly believe that there are some solid principles on which to base the rewrite: the need to boost exports, to retain market-based policies, and to create a mechanism that provides some counter-cyclical support. One other thing is clear: we have to increase the budget baseline for agriculture. Unfortunately, the $4 billion envisioned by Congress in 1996 for the post-Freedom to Farm era is woefully inadequate. The farm economy will be devastated if we don't get that changed."
Stallman also mentioned the 21st Century Commission on Production Agriculture, of which he is a member. The panel was "created by Congress to make recommendations on farm policy after Freedom to Farm made future farm bills unnecessary. I can tell you now, the committee has had to modify the belief from five years ago that there would be no more farm bills."
Stallman said the commission will present its report to Congress within the next several weeks. Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups will follow up with their own proposals.
"We intend to be a major player and will work for comprehensive farm policy that addresses more than just the traditional commodity-based provisions of farm bills. We hope to see a vigorous and thorough debate over the next several years. Farm policy can no longer be merely an afterthought. It's clear however, that whatever mechanisms are included in the next farm bill, farm families will need to be placed at the forefront. We need to find a way to keep as many families as possible in agriculture and present opportunities for young people who want to farm."
Today's producers were greatly influenced by the economic troubles of the 1980s, said Stallman. They learned lessons and have done everything possible to stay competitive.
"By and large, the problems some of them have had over the years were caused by events out of their control - disasters and the Asian financial collapse to name two. These people are tough, they are survivors. They are the kind of people our nation should want and need to succeed. We can't afford to lose them."
Journalists' questions (in bold face) followed Stallman's opening statements. Among them:
How much should the baseline number be increased from the current $4 billion?
"We've been looking at that and haven't come up with a solid number yet. It'll have to be a substantial increase."
What would be substantial? $5 billion more? $10 billion?
"This is off the cuff, but I think you're going to have to double (the current number). I think we need to get into the $9 billion area. Some of that, obviously, can come off provided commodity prices improve."
Do you think Congress should begin writing the farm bill immediately instead of waiting another year or two?
"I think they're going to have to begin this year. The debate is going to be comprehensive and will take a lot of time. There are people who have spoken about completing a new farm bill in 2001. My personal take on that is it will be very difficult to do due to the new president, the tightness of party division in Congress and substantive issues that need fleshing out. I think it will be 2002 before it gets done."
If the markets don't improve, will Congress again provide extra income for farmers as they have the last three years - especially if the proposed tax cuts go through?
"I think there's certainly an indication that another assistance payment will be needed this year given the current low prices and that we won't have a fast enough economic turnaround in 2001. I think there's a good possibility that payment will happen."
What kind of suggestions do you have for the new administration in regards to opening new markets when people have been trying to do that for the past 100 years?
"It depends on how aggressively they do it. I'm convinced the Bush administration is going to push this more than has been done (over the last eight years). How you do it is to just keep going head-to-head.
"Look at the EU - we passed carousel retaliation almost seven months ago and the administration didn't implement it. That's one thing that's gotten the EU's attention. We expect this administration to use such tools to move us down the road toward opening markets."
There were conflicting reports from Texas during the presidential campaign on how Gov. Bush's policies affected farmers and ranchers there. In retrospect, how do you see those policies?
"Well, some of the national reports I heard didn't jibe with my own experiences there (where Stallman resides and works). We went to him on various ag issues. From a state level you obviously don't have the kind of support you do at national levels.
"But whether it was property rights, water issues or regulatory issues, we took them to him. He applied a lot of common sense and good judgment. I'd have to characterize his dealings with agriculture in Texas as very positive."
How do you feel about Bush's ability to relieve some of the regulatory burden on farmers?
"When he met with ag leaders in Austin before Christmas, both Gov. Whitman and Anne Veneman were there. By doing that, the point being made was it's very important for EPA and USDA to have interaction on issues - particularly regulatory - that affect agriculture.
"President Bush made it clear that he wants sound science used in regulatory decisions. I think there will be every effort to implement that to the extent that court decisions and laws allow. We're confident there's going to be a better operating environment than we've had in the past."
How have your (21st Century Commission on Production Agriculture) discussions gone coming down to the report. Will there be a minority dissenting report?
"When we first started the commission I said that if we could reach a consensus given the diversity of the panel, Congress should really pay attention. The final draft report hasn't been finished. As I understand it, there will likely be a report signed by the majority of members and there will likely be one or more minority reports. I don't think that's necessarily negative."
What's your take with Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman?
"I'm very pleased with that appointment. She'll likely come into the position with more on-the-ground experience with USDA than probably any secretary of ag in the past. She is also strong in international trade."
There are a few days left with the Clinton administration. It has been a busy last few days with executive orders. How big of a concern is that to you and how big a challenge will it be to overturn some of those?
"This a great concern. The term 'busy beaver' doesn't sufficiently characterize it. The number of proposals and regulations they're putting out is tremendous. This is one thing we spoke with President-elect Bush about. He indicated he would review every one of them and see what can be done to correct some of the excesses of the current administration's final days."
On the ag production side, there's been some concerns that too much is being done by ag powers for big farms instead of the traditional family farms. How does Farm Bureau balance those concerns?
"I'm very careful about talking about 'small family farmers' because I know a lot of large family farmers. We do have a diversity of situations between large and small operations. Both are very important to agriculture and both are FB members. That's one reason one-size-fits-all legislation probably won't work. It's going to take a range of policy options to deal with that."