PETERSON CALLS SAFETY NET A FARM BILL PRIORITY
WASHINGTON, March 14-- Securing adequate funds for the next farm bill was the top priority for almost 250 members of the Alabama Farmers Federation when they met with their congressmen and senators this week as part of the Federation's annual Washington Legislative Trip.
|House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., right, addresses Alabama farmers during the Washington Legislative Trip as Alabama Farmers Federation President Jerry A. Newby looks on.|
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told the group that a recent upturn in grain prices has reduced baseline projections for how much money will be available for farm programs by 45 percent from what they were when the 2002 Farm Bill was drafted. But with that farm bill set to expire Oct. 1, Peterson pledged to help draft a new farm policy that would provide continued security for the nation's supply of food and fiber.
"My main focus in this farm bill is to maintain the safety net as a bottom line, and I would actually like to improve it," said Peterson during a Wednesday morning meeting with the Alabama farmers.
Peterson was preceded on the podium by American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Bob Stallman, who outlined the current budget situation as well as rules that require Congress to pay for additional federal spending by identifying matching savings in other program areas.
"The projections for future spending -- assuming the same farm bill policies --- have diminished greatly," Stallman said. "In fact, you're looking at levels that amount to about $7 billion a year for the commodity title. Now, contrast that with spending $16- to $19 billion as we have in some recent years. So, what that means ... we are starting off already in this farm bill debate without much money, if you will, to fund the commodity title."
Compounding this situation are requests from various agricultural interests for increased spending for research, renewable fuels initiatives and conservation programs. Meanwhile, Congress and farm groups must sort through the Bush administration's farm bill proposal, which calls for steep cuts in traditional farm programs as well as strict payment limitations for those farmers receiving assistance.
Both Peterson and Stallman noted, however, that the 2002 Farm Bill has cost the government about $17 billion less than originally projected. That savings, they said, should motivate Congress to invest more in agriculture, not less.
"You can see that the demands of a lot of those who are interested in the farm bill far exceed the dollars that are going to be available to meet those demands," Stallman said. "So that's why I say that the first fight, and the most important fight, is on the budget side.
"If there is one message that it would do well for you to deliver while you are up here this week is that we need to have additional budget funding for this farm bill because we have been good stewards of the budget," Stallman added.
Lawrence County farmer Brian Glenn was among the farmers who accepted Stallman's challenge, adding that farm spending accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget and is a good investment for the American consumer.
"Farm programs are a small part of the ag budget, and I think that's something that the public doesn't often realize," he said. "The commodity title portion of the farm bill is just a small part of it, and they can't balance the federal budget on the backs of the farmers."
Regardless of how much money is eventually budgeted for the farm bill, both farmers and lawmakers agree that renewable fuels should be a major component of farm policy for the next decade. In fact, Peterson said the potential for agriculture to reap benefits from ethanol, biodiesel and other emerging energy sources has renewed optimism among American farmers.
"It's the most exciting time that I can remember in my lifetime in agriculture," he said. "I see more optimism from farmers than I've ever seen traveling around the country because of the new opportunities created by renewable fuels, and a lot of the farm bill will be focused in this area."
While ethanol production from corn already is boosting the agricultural economy in the Midwest, Peterson said he wants to encourage the development of other farm-based fuels like cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel, which could be produced in areas outside the nation's Corn Belt.
"We want to try to make this industry develop all over the country," he said.
Peterson has set an aggressive timeline for completing the 2007 Farm Bill by Sept. 30, which would provide farmers time to make fall planting decisions.
Meanwhile, he is working to pass disaster assistance as part of a supplemental spending bill. His plan would allow farmers to apply for relief from drought, storms and blizzards in one of the past three crop years.
Peterson also addressed the need for mandatory animal identification, which he said could be linked to efforts to implement country-of-origin labeling for food. In addition, he is working to exempt animal agriculture from the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund regulations, which were created to address toxic waste dumps.
During the meeting, Alabama farmers called on Peterson and Stallman to work for additional funding for agricultural research as well as a program that would allow farmers to set aside their own money in tax-deferred savings accounts for use in times of disaster or low prices.
Stallman reiterated the need for Congress to pass immigration reform that includes a guest worker provision to ensure American agriculture has an adequate labor force, noting that the "window" for passing such politically charged legislation will close as the nation enters the presidential election year. He also noted that animal agriculture in the United States is under attack and called on farmers to help educate the public about the good job they are doing to produce food in a safe, humane and environmentally friendly manner.
Repeal of the estate or "death" tax, which has long been a policy priority of the Farm Bureau and Alabama Farmers Federation, is not likely to happen in this Congress, Stallman said.
Following the talks by Peterson and Stallman, Alabama farmers heard from USDA representatives as well as members of the AFBF staff. They also attended a reception for members of Congress and staff, which featured barbecue by Colbert County farmer L.O. Bishop.
The Washington Legislative Trip agenda also includes an opportunity for Alabama congressmen to meet with Federation members from their respective districts as well as a general session featuring Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions.
During these meetings, the Alabama farmers said they will emphasize the need for a fully funded farm bill that meets the needs of American agriculture. Their goal is to get a commitment from lawmakers like one given by Peterson, which prompted a standing ovation from the Federation members.
"I'll guarantee you as much as I can this farm bill will be written for farmers, for producers, not for agribusiness or not for trade," Peterson said. "This farm bill will not be written based on some potential WTO (World Trade Organization) deal. It will be written for American agriculture and for farmers."