ALABAMA FARMERS URGE LAWMAKERS TO PASS FARM BILL
WASHINGTON, D.C., March 7 -- With planting season looming, more than 200 Alabama farmers traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to urge lawmakers to act quickly and finalize a farm bill.
|Alabama farmers visit in front of the U.S. Capitol following breakfast meetings with their congressmen. From left are, Mitch and Dawn Lazenby of Lee County, Delle and Ray Bean of Calhoun County and Virginia and Earl Saxon of Etowah County.|
Participants in the Alabama Farmers Federation's annual Washington Legislative Trip March 4-7 met with Alabama Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby as well as the state's seven congressmen and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. All shared the farmers' urgency to pass a farm bill, but an ongoing budget battle between Congress and the Bush administration will likely delay the multi-year legislation for at least another month.
"The last farm bill, for five years, worked," Sessions told the group during a luncheon Wednesday. "We've had an increase in crop prices; it was far less expensive in cost than a lot of the critics predicted it would be. I think we're coming at this bill with a lot more positive feedback toward a successful package. I suspect they're just some smaller things and maybe an overall budget issue that we're close to fixing. We should be able to pass this bill."
The current farm bill, which passed in 2002, expired last fall, but lawmakers have extended it to March 15. The House and Senate have both passed farm bill packages, and a conference committee is working to resolve differences in the two bills. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it exceeds spending limits set by the administration, but many farm-state lawmakers believe those limits would seriously weaken the financial safety net for farmers. Sessions predicted another short-term extension would be announced to give the conference committee additional time to work on the bill. Without an extension, many farm, nutrition and conservation programs would be in jeopardy because farm policy would revert to permanent 1949 law.
American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman gave the farmers a pep talk Wednesday morning before they met with lawmakers.
"It's very important to let your delegation know that we need to get a farm bill done. Time's a wasting. Planting is going on, and farmers and bankers are waiting to see what the provisions are going to be," Stallman said.
Stallman said the fate of the farm bill could ultimately come down to whether Republican congressmen are willing to override a presidential veto, provided the bipartisan conference committee can agree on a farm package with broad-based support.
"I'm going to be voting with you," said Shelby when Federation President Jerry A. Newby asked him about the upcoming vote on the farm bill. Shelby has served in the U.S. Senate for 22 years.
Federation National Affairs Director Keith Gray told the Alabama farmers they should be "unapologetic" when talking to lawmakers about the farm bill.
"Tell your congressman and senators as you meet with them this week that we want them to vote against a veto if it comes to that. We want a farm bill," Gray said. "A short-term extension will be okay, but this is about your jobs, and agriculture is the single largest industry in our state. No one can tell your story better than you."
U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Montgomery, also spoke to the group Wednesday. He said farmers shouldn't have to discourage their children from continuing the farming legacy, but rather should be proud to pass on their lifestyle to the next generation.
"Survival is not a good enough standard for our Alabama farmers..." Davis said. "We're serious about this idea that rural Alabama can prosper. We will not be content to say, 'They're not as poor as they were 10 years ago.' Instead, it means we will say, 'Let's find a way to make them prosperous, affluent, abundant and successful.'"
Wednesday afternoon the farmers heard from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner, who reiterated the Bush administration's hard-line stance on spending for the farm bill. While at the USDA headquarters, the Alabama group also heard from Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, who is sponsoring legislation to standardize intrastate transportation exemptions for agriculture.
"The small farmer in Alabama who is trying to get his goods to market or trying to get from one part of the county to another should not be under the same regulations as some federal carrier that is transporting goods on a daily basis from one part of the country to another. Right now, they are put in the same category," Aderholt said. "The Alabama delegation has been very supportive on this issue. I think we have 100 percent who have signed on to the legislation. I think they have heard from the farmers, and they know this is something that is unfair. I appreciate the delegation signing on to this legislation and helping us move it forward."
Although Aderholt could not predict when the House would consider his bill, HR 3098, he is meeting with the chairman of the transportation committee to see if something can be done to clarify current law - possibly in the reauthorization of the transportation bill.
Meanwhile, Sessions said one of his priorities for the farm bill is passage of a cost-share program to help farmers increase their use of irrigation. Originally sponsored in the House by U.S. Rep. Terry Everett, R-Rehobeth, Sessions has championed the legislation in the Senate.
"We could eliminate that total crop loss that occurs one out of every four or five years through irrigation," Sessions said. Both Sessions and Everett were at the Federation headquarters in Montgomery last month to hear from scientists and state climate and geology experts about Alabama's vast water resources and potential for increasing irrigation. In addition, Newby has appointed a Water Resource Committee made up of farmers from across the state. That committee is charged with making recommendations regarding the Federation's policy on water and ensuring agriculture is well represented when state officials begin discussing a state water management plan.
Other issues on the minds of farmers participating in the Washington Legislative Trip included immigration, environmental regulations, estate taxes, alternative energy and funding for agricultural research projects.
On Thursday morning, the farmers met with their respective congressman during breakfast meetings. That night, a reception, featuring barbecue from Colbert County farmer L.O. Bishop, was held at the Rayburn House Building. Dozens of congressional staffers attended the annual event, as did Sessions and two key congressional leaders.
Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri spoke to the group, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was on hand to talk to farmers about the farm bill.
Click here for more photos from the Washington Legislative Trip.