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Published August 16, 2011, 11:10 AM

Conrad, Miller aim to cut farm program duplication

STOWE, Vt. — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and budget aide Jim Miller are working on a proposal to combine the countercyclical farm payment program, the average crop revenue election program known as ACRE and disaster aid in the next farm bill, a key farm lobbyist said.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

STOWE, Vt. — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and budget aide Jim Miller are working on a proposal to combine the countercyclical farm payment program, the average crop revenue election program known as ACRE and disaster aid in the next farm bill, a key farm lobbyist said.

In a panel discussion on the next farm bill at the American Sugar Alliance meeting in Stowe, Vt., Mary Kay Thatcher, the public policy director of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Conrad and Miller, who previously was in charge of the farm program as agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agriculture services, were working on the proposal. Maintaining a disaster program is “one of their big issues,” she noted.

Conrad has not announced the proposal, but an aide acknowledged to Agweek that Conrad and Miller are working on a proposal to consolidate and simplify farm programs and make sure there is no duplication. The aide said that the proposal is at this point conceptual and that no legislation has been drafted.

An aide to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said that Stabenow “looks forward to seeing Sen. Conrad’s proposal, as well as proposals from all members of the committee that best serve farmers and producers in addressing the many challenges they face — and creating a strong farm bill for America’s small towns and rural communities.”

The aide noted Stabenow has said “the current budget climate reinforces the need to streamline and improve programs where possible. Among her highest priorities are maintaining and strengthening the tools necessary to effectively manage risk as well as developing smarter, simplified programs.”

Maintaining a disaster program

Conrad, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack all have said they think maintaining a disaster program is important. The 2008 farm bill contains a disaster program known as the supplemental revenue assistance payments program or SURE that Conrad and Baucus inserted into the bill.

SURE has been controversial because its payments are made on a delayed basis and because it has not functioned well in the South. SURE was supposed to prevent the need for ad hoc disaster programs, but during the 2010 election campaign, then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., tried to get Congress to pass a disaster program that would benefit Arkansas farmers and finally settled for the Agriculture Department using its authorities to provide some aid.

The SURE program expires before the end of the 2008 farm bill and it will have no baseline when Congress writes the next bill.

Thatcher did not give any Farm Bureau views on the proposal. She noted that at the Farm Bureau convention this year, delegates endorsed the idea of continuing all farm programs, but were silent on the issue of whether there should be a disaster program. Thatcher pointed out that Farm Bureau delegates had not said they were against a disaster program, only that they were silent on it compared with other programs.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson told the sugar growers that the one point on which Farm Bureau and Farmers Union differ explicitly is on the importance of maintaining a disaster program.

“We must ensure that SURE and other disaster programs receive the funding they need,” Johnson said

“Between 1996 and 2002, the federal government made $30 billion in emergency payments to farmers and ranchers because it cut the safety net from the 1996 farm bill, written during a time of high prices,” Johnson said. “We must not repeat that mistake. The cost to extend SURE and other disaster programs for five years is a much more reasonable $8.9 billion. In the long run, including disaster programs in the farm bill is cost-effective.”

A Congressional Budget Office estimate of the cost of extending the SURE program has placed the cost at $16 billion, however, a key Senate aide said.

Johnson said that international trade and market access “can’t solve the problem” and that there is “a need to focus on both exports and domestic market demand.”

He said he does not think the Farmers Union would have any problem with combining and simplifying the programs.

National Corn Growers Association CEO Rick Tolman told the sugar growers his group had not analyzed combining programs, but he also said that ACRE, a program that the corn growers and the American Farmland Trust developed together, should be simplified so more farmers would use it.

Crop insurance questions

Thatcher, Johnson and Tolman all said that crop insurance is the most important to farmers nationwide, but raised questions about it.

Thatcher noted that the cost of farmer premium subsidies has risen to $7 billion, making it the most expensive of farm programs, and also making it a target for reformers such as the Environmental Working Group. She said crop insurance policies need to work better for Southern crops.

Tolman noted that corn growers think their premiums are too high for their level of risk. Johnson said he thinks crop insurance could be reformed further to cut government costs, and said it should not be possible, as it is now, to buy insurance for a higher value than the cost of production.

Thatcher also said she thinks conservation is going to be a “huge” issue in the farm bill debate, and said the 23 conservation programs probably will be merged into only four or five.

She also said she thinks there will be “real changes” to the Conservation Reserve Program, which idles land, and to the Conservation Stewardship Program. CSP was “the baby” of former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Thatcher said, “but there are a lot of mixed feelings” about it.

Thatcher also said, “I am not a believer that direct payments are gone.” Even though critics have charged that the payments are a waste, environmentalists now are worried that farmers who have been getting the payments and using the land for grazing “will rip up highly erodible land,” she added.

Environmentalists also are talking about tying conservation to crop insurance since that program is popular and more widely used than in the past and also could revive sodbuster proposals that would prevent farmers from breaking up land, she said.

Finally, Thatcher said, farmers need to be more vocal about explaining to the public that they are not getting “$14 for every bushel of soybeans we sell.”

As the agriculture committees and the congressional supercommittee decide potential agriculture cuts in the coming weeks, she said, “we need to make sure the members understand” the real prices farmers get and the costs they bear.

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