ND senator's staffer says now is the time to speak up on farm bill

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Feedback. That's what Jim Miller, a senior agricultural policy staffer for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says his boss wants to hear from ordinary farmers and ranchers about what they think about the 2008 farm bill that is in effec...

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Feedback.

That's what Jim Miller, a senior agricultural policy staffer for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says his boss wants to hear from ordinary farmers and ranchers about what they think about the 2008 farm bill that is in effect now, and what they'd like to see for a 2012 farm bill, which would replace it.

Miller and Scott Stofferahn were among the officials attending the dedication of the North Dakota Farmers Union remodeled headquarters July 19 in Jamestown, N.D., and he took time to talk with Agweek about the status of farm bill discussions. The NDFU held six meetings throughout the state in mid-July to gather some of that input.

Conrad has been a key leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee during the creation of both the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. Still chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Conrad will play a key role in the replacement farm bill, even though he has announced he will not run for re-election in 2012. Conrad chose not to run, in part, so that he could be able to more directly address the mounting debt-ceiling crisis. Miller says that while the farm bill is a big issue in North Dakota and other farm states, setting the policy.

"It's a trite expression, but 'nothing is resolved until everything is resolved,'" Miller says, of the overriding budget issue. He says there is an "expectation" among congressional agricultural policymakers that the budget is going to be reduced.


The question is how big the cut will be.

"The longer we wait, the fiscal situation may not be better and agriculture may be in a worse position," Miller says.

The president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, as well as the so-called "Gang of Six" in the Senate, including Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee, indicated that agriculture should contribute savings of $11 billion over 10 years. They don't say how those savings should be achieved, but leave those decisions to congressional agriculture committees.

"That ($11 billion cut) is something we could manage and still be able to address the priorities of farmers and ranchers and the conservation community and others who rely on these programs," Miller says.

Ag cuts up to 25 percent?

The House of Representatives budget, on the other hand, seeks a $48 billion cut for agriculture, and specifies $30 billion in cuts from commodity programs and $18 billion from conservation.

"If you look at the baseline (spending) for agricultural programs, excluding nutrition, the baseline is just under $210 billion," Miller says.

Put that way, a $48 billion cut would account for 20to 25 percent, where the $10 billion to $11 billion cut would be about 5 percent, and would be more in line with cuts proposed for other programs.


Feedback would be especially helpful on the new programs that were created in the 2008 farm bill -- the so-called ACRE (Average Crop Revenue Election) and SURE (Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payment Program), a permanent disaster program. There were a number of reforms in the conservation programs and payment limitations regimes.

"We're trying to get feedback on what are producer priorities," Miller says.

In the NDFU meetings, farmers pointed to crop insurance as one of their most important safety nets, Miller says. Earlier this year, the Obama administration was successful in getting new standard reinsurance agreements that dictate the levels of taxpayer subsidies for the programs.

The Congressional Budget Office scored the cuts at 6 billion but the administration counts them at $4 billion.

"We already provided a significant amount to deficit reduction through that exercise," Miller says. Some cuts came from administrative and operating ("A and O") reimbursement, from which agent commissions are drawn. There were also changes in how companies divide up the underwriting gains, allowing the federal government to get more of the profits in years when programs are more profitable.

Crop insurance now is the second-largest category of spending in the USDA farm program budget, so likely will be a target for critics. Miller says it is well to remember that the cost has increased because commodity prices have increased.

Crop insurance target?

Miller was a key staffer in writing the current farm bill, and moved to the USDA as undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. He says the changes in the 2008 bill were significant, with the FSA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development agencies each having to write and implement 40 new regulations to implement their specific titles.


Some programs under the farm bill are set to expire at the end of September this year even though the bill runs through 2012. Those include the permanent disaster program and the Wetlands Reserve Program.

"I think those programs are likely to get extended," he says. "We have a great interest in trying to ensure that we have a disaster program" because it is becoming increasingly unlikely to get so-called ad hoc disaster programs through Congress.

Miller says the Senate will hold hearings both in Washington and in the field in the next several months.

"The goal is to try to conclude that part of the process sometime this fall," he says, noting this should cover conservation, commodity and nutrition titles.

Senators on the agriculture committee, most of whom are farm bill veterans, and many of whom have chaired the committee or chair other committees in the Senate, see disaster programs as a priority.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who some worried might be focused primarily on specialty crops, is showing leadership in the broader agricultural, which contributes jobs, economic activity and trade.

Meanwhile, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have the challenge of working with a committee in which half of the committee is brand new -- both to farm bills in particular and to forming federal legislation in general. Given this, the Senate is likely to go first on the bill, which would be unusual.

"The meetings last week in North Dakota indicate it's a priority for producers," Miller says, noting that the programs help farmers during flooding throughout the Missouri and Mississippi River drainage basins. The programs also have been important in very significant droughts in the Southern Plains.


Miller says one of the messages is that many of the USDA programs have gotten too complex -- for farmers to understand and communicate to landlords, and for the Farm Service Agency and others to administer. He says Congress probably will work to simplify things -- create commonality in reporting dates among agencies and streamline information among them.

"For a policymaker like Sen. Conrad, this is extremely important, to get feedback from real producers," Miller says, although he acknowledges North Dakota is the kind of state where commodity organization leaders and others have regular contact with the senator and his staff.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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