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Published January 16, 2012, 11:22 AM

AFBF ends support for direct payments

Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Honolulu ended their support for the $5 billion annual direct payments program that crop farmers get whether prices are high or low on Jan. 10, but the new policy they passed reflected continued differences between regions and commodities that will make it difficult for the nation’s largest general farm group to develop policy on a new farm bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

HONOLULU — Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Honolulu ended their support for the $5 billion annual direct payments program that crop farmers get whether prices are high or low on Jan. 10, but the new policy they passed reflected continued differences between regions and commodities that will make it difficult for the nation’s largest general farm group to develop policy on a new farm bill.

The 369 delegates from all 50 states adopted most of a new farm bill policy based on catastrophic loss coverage developed by the board in December, but they also watered it down somewhat.

Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said at a news conference that the delegates, who last year had supported a continuation of the 2008 farm bill, had given him authority to move forward rather than focus on the past. He also said the board had given him the authority to oppose the varied programs that commodity groups developed and that congressional farm leaders included in the proposal that was sent to the failed supercommittee.

“We want an overall farm policy framework, not a patchwork,” Stallman said. “We want a more unified and simpler policy structure.”

But Stallman acknowledged that no other farm group supports Farm Bureau’s current proposal and that it may change.

“We are going to try to recruit allies,” Stallman said. “We still have analytic work to do,” he added, noting that the Congressional Budget Office has not yet scored the proposal.

Stallman said he is not sure what will happen if Congress is unwilling to pass a new farm bill before the 2008 bill expires on Sept. 30. Some sort of bill has to be passed, or the antiquated 1949 farm act will go into effect, but Stallman noted that Congress might find it difficult to pass a simple extension as it tries to reduce spending.

Direct payments debated

The policy passed Jan. 10 eliminated the Farm Bureau’s support for the direct payments program, created in the 1996 farm bill, which has been criticized for providing payments to farmers when prices are high.

A Mississippi delegate proposed an amendment to continue to support direct payments, but it was defeated overwhelmingly on a voice vote. The delegate noted that ending the program would remove several hundred million dollars from agriculture in each of a number of states. But a Wisconsin delegate said a resolution continuing support for direct payments would be in conflict with an already-passed resolution favoring a balanced budget amendment.

“When you’re selling corn at $7 (per bushel) can you really say you need direct payments?” asked one delegate.

The delegates said they wanted to develop a farm policy that includes “a strong safety net to help producers deal with catastrophic revenue losses; a program that allows farmers to purchase insurance products to further protect individual risk; a program that is available to producers of all crops that have insurance available to them; and a program to be delivered by private crop insurance companies.”

But the delegates voted to eliminate the name that the board had given to the policy: the Systemic Risk Reduction Program, which had become known by the acronym “SYRRP” and pronounced “syrup.” One delegate said the name sounded bad and that the final product is likely to change.

Stallman told reporters he had proposed the name, but it showed “I don’t have much experience branding products.”

Policy developments

A Mississippi delegate proposed an amendment that would allow the Farm Bureau to support "options and flexibility in programs which account for regional commodity differences.” That amendment would obviously have allowed support for the different programs that northern and southern commodity growers have proposed, and the board has opposed.

“Does it give us clear direction?” Stallman asked during the debate on that amendment.

It was defeated 199 to 112. The vote was not close but the size of each camp reflected the differences among the states.

Reformers had less luck in opposing a board provision calling for “a commodity loan program.” A delegate from Arkansas proposed changing that term to “the current marketing loan program” and an Illinois delegate added “with loan rates established to better reflect market values.”

One delegate suggested the wording in the amendment be changed to “a marketing loan program,” but the author of the amendment said he specifically wanted a continuation of the current marketing loan and the change from “the” to “a” was voted down by 182 to 152.

The amendment to allow support for a change in loan rates passed on a vote of 253 to 79 and the entire amendment passed by voice vote. The marketing loan amendment appeared to be a direct rebuke to board policy that has criticized proposals from commodity groups and was backed by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., to raise target prices.

Farm Bureau staff has said the target prices under consideration would cause farmers to plant to get government payments rather than to follow the market. Stallman noted after the news conference that the language in the Farm Bureau proposal did not call for an increase in target prices.

In other policy developments, Farm Bureau delegates:

n Adopted an amendment on dairy policy that said the group supports “efforts to manage milk supply, which account for the regional differences in fluid milk supply and demand.” That amendment could make it difficult for the Farm Bureau to support the dairy program modernization proposal that House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has developed and the National Milk Producers Federation is supporting. Stallman said the board would have to interpret the provision in relationship to the policy.

n Rejected an amendment to allow Farm Bureau support for a federal policy on the care of egg-producing chickens. The amendment came from supporters of a proposal developed jointly by the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States to call for federal legislation that would set standards to avoid state ballot measures on egg production.

n Continued support for the Renewable Fuel Standard.

n Called for “the elimination of carbonated beverages from food available in/under assistance programs and those nonfruit, vegetable and dairy beverages with bottle deposits.” Sweetened, carbonated beverages have been implicated in obesity among children, but Stallman said that the delegates’ intent was to encourage the consumption of foods that are closer to commodity production.

n Rejected a proposal to oppose the use of food stamps at fast-food restaurants on the grounds that those restaurants use food produced by Farm Bureau members.

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