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Homestretch - Farm bill 'not perfect,' but still 'best in history'

FARGO, N.D. -- Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says he hoped to have the latest "round of negotiations" over the 2008 farm bill complete by the first week in April, but now predicts it will take "additional weeks" to finish a farm bill.

FARGO, N.D. -- Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says he hoped to have the latest "round of negotiations" over the 2008 farm bill complete by the first week in April, but now predicts it will take "additional weeks" to finish a farm bill.

The first step is to allocate the resources. Then Congress has to "attach policy" to where the resources have been allocated.

Conrad, who held a March 25 news conference in Fargo, N.D., says a "lot of people" have to be "consulted and dealt with" on a funding package, but declines to say exactly who they are. He says the congressional agreement between the House and Senate has not yet been shared with the White House.

"I think we've tried to be very sensitive to White House concerns," he says, but adds, "We're ready to make a decision. We've about reached the end of endless discussion."

Farmers at the news conference seem pleased with the idea of sending up a bill to President Bush, whether he indicates he'd veto it or not.

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"You've got to play your cards once in awhile," says Tom Borgen of Langdon, N.D., of the North Dakota Canola Growers Association.

Conrad describes it as a "Rubik's Cube" of complexity.

A 'disciplined process'

He says not all of the members of the House and Senate agriculture committees have been apprised of the agreement. He declines to say who the ones are who are briefing and who is being briefed.

"I don't think I want to get into that," he says, explaining that he doesn't want members to feel slighted.

Conrad says the core group has been the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate agriculture committee, as well as himself, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

"We are going through a very disciplined process of sharing an outline with other conferees," Conrad says. "That may change this package. We know there are going to be some people very unhappy. But in life, you just don't get everything you want. You sure don't get it when there isn't enough money to do everything everybody wants to do."

He says Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees provided $10 billion of financing, but he notes that the baseline is $17 billion less than in the past farm bill.

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"If the scores come back as we anticipate, we are very close to a historic agreement," Conrad says, one he thinks the state will be "very proud of" and consider a "huge victory." He calls it the "single-most important piece of legislation to the state of North Dakota" and this version still has potential to be the "best in history."

He says the farm bill needs to provide a safety net for farmers in tough economic times. Hearkening back to the 2004 crop, Conrad says the average farm income in the state was about $77,000, and it would have been $14,000 without the farm program payments. "That gives you some idea of the consequence here," he says.

As always, Conrad emphasizes the difficulty of the work and blames the White House for veto threats.

"The White House, even when they make a suggestion of how we might pay for it, comes back several weeks later and says they really didn't mean that," he says. "We can't use that offset."

Second, he says there are big differences regionally in the nation.

Conrad says there is going to be a "significant" permanent disaster provision, which was one of his top priorities, although it is most effective for farmers who grow a smaller number of crops. He says there will be "some reduction" in the final disaster package.

"It will be very close to what came out of the Senate, there will probably some change because we've had to take some reduction from the $5 billion. But the agreement is that nothing is settled until everything is settled," says Conrad, who declines to be more specific, saying it would be a mistake to get into details.

Disaster aid

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Conrad says the disaster program is not built with funding caps, which must be prorated for farmers to qualify.

There will be a fully, fairly funded disaster package.

The "rebalancing" will provide fairer loan rates and target prices distribution between" between Northern Plains and Southern crops." He says the energy component is "not as robust as we had hoped for," but nonetheless "significant." Conservation is going to be "upgraded, improved and made much more farmer-friendly."

"The commodity title is taking some reductions," he says. "We all knew that was going to be inevitable. And at the end of the day, we're going to have some savings -- modest savings -- out of direct payments."

He emphasizes this is "very modest" savings "in the range of 3 percent" out of direct payments. "I would prefer not to do that, but I don't get to just decide," Conrad says. "Much of life is you get what you negotiate."

He says cuts out of direct payments were inevitable in a time when farmers are receiving high commodity prices.

Conrad says the last disaster package took three years to get compensation. "Now we will have permanent, funded disaster assistance -- what a breakthrough."

Conrad says that "every one of our negotiating priorities will have been achieved," although he also says he's given some ground on every priority point. He says the bill will be "very close" to the Senate version, but will be a compromise.

He says the bill is being negotiated at a time of tight budgeting, as opposed to the 2002 farm bill. He says Bush has doubled the deficit, and the budget had a lower baseline budget. He notes 66 percent of the bill goes to nutrition, 14 percent for commodity support and 10 percent for conservation.

When asked whether the package is veto-proof, Conrad jokes, "Yes," and then immediately said, "I like the sound of that. Getting serious, he said Congress has worked to make the bill as "veto-proof as possible."

He says there is "virtually no chance" that 1949 "permanent law" will kick in.

Paul Mathiason of Grand Forks, N.D., former president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, also asked for a new bill and not an extension, speaking on behalf of both beet and cane growers.

Steve Sellent, director of the Great Plains Food Bank in Fargo, says it takes private federal funds to "make sure everybody's got a meal on their table," and the farm bill plays an important role in making sure no one in the state goes hungry.

North Dakota Ag Commissioner Roger Johnson, who has worked on the bill as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, seems pleased at the inclusion of the permanent disaster package.

"If I had a nickel for every time I've been to Washington to talk about disaster funding, I'd have a buck," Johnson says joking. "Oops, I started out on the wrong line there."

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