Commentary- Structure of current farm bill doesn?t need repair

There?s an old saying, ?If it ain?t broke, don?t fix it.? This adage holds true as Congress prepares to hammer out the details of the next farm bill. These decisions will steer this nation?s producers through the coming five years.

The current structure of the 2002 farm bill is working and working well?not only for farmers, but for this country?s consumers and the environment. If it?s working, let it be.

In mid-June, a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee voted unanimously to extend, for five years, the current system.

Kansas representatives Jerry Moran and Nancy Boyda sit on this subcommittee and voted for an extension of the ?02 farm bill?a system that would benefit all sectors of American agriculture.

The subcommittee?s proposal maintains the basic structure of the ?02 farm bill. Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, Minnesota, has indicated he wants to keep the $7 billion baseline for commodity programs in the commodity title and will oppose any transfer of those funds to conservation, nutrition, etc.

Peterson has also indicated he considers the current ?three-legged stool? of direct payments, marketing loans and counter-cyclical payments to be important parts of the economic safety net.

However, he believes a permanent disaster program must be included as part of the next farm bill?a necessary safety net. Peterson has stated on several occasions he intends to reduce fixed payments to pay for the permanent disaster program.

When the full Agriculture Committee marks up the full bill, likely in mid to late July, there will no doubt be a battle to maintain funding for direct payments, counter-cyclical payments and loan deficiency payments.

The full House debate also will likely center on a shift of funds from the commodity title to conservation and nutrition programs. The promise of ?new? monies remains elusive.

Estimates show Kansas land values could decline as much as 30 percent should elimination of direct payments occur. This would drastically impact financial markets and undermine our producers? abilities to repay operating and land loans to local bankers.

Farmers would benefit from a proposal like that of the House Subcommittee. It is fiscally responsible.

Multi-year funding for the 2007 farm bill could potentially cost $57 billion less. This is 50 percent less than what Congress committed to spend on the current multi-year program.

While there are many goals to be met in the final proposal and maintaining the current structure is certainly an important one, there are key recommendations necessary for the new bill.

One is contained in an amendment to the conservation title offered by Congressman Moran. His suggestion would add flexibility to the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) by allowing land to be dry land farmed where the goal of the CREP is water conservation.

That?s the goal of the proposed CREP in Kansas and the added flexibility would go a long way to allowing producers to see the benefits of reducing their consumption of water all the while ensuring our rural economy continues to benefit from production from the land.

A second suggestion, also by Moran, would allow production of biomass on CRP acres. That concept also makes sense as renewable fuels, especially the production of cellulosic ethanol, continue to expand.

Recent history has demonstrated, agricultural producers need stability and flexibility to survive in today?s marketplace. Direct payments, marketing loans and counter-cyclical payments will go a long way to help ensure success and provide an important safety net.

And, expanding programs that are already working like CREP and CRP will allow us to continue to advance new industries while protecting our natural resources at the same time.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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