May 19 , 2006
By Bobby Horecka
Maintaining safety nets, preparing for disasters and addressing future farm needs rose as primary concerns when Texans met this month in San Angelo to discuss priorities for the next farm bill.
But while many programs of the existing policy could be improved upon, farmers and ranchers from the Lone Star State urged Congress to extend the 2002 Farm Bill until trade talks are completed at the World Trade Organization. They shunned the idea of U.S. trade policy being drafted in Geneva, but they also saw merit in having a clear definition of the rules before lawmakers set about drafting new policies.
Two producer panels went before members of the House Agricultural Committee on May 9 at Angelo State University's C.J. Davidson Conference Center. The first comprised primarily crop farmersthe main benefactors of the current farm policyand the second was made up of livestock producers and non-program crop growers.
Both groups urged lawmakers to extend certain existing programs, particularly market loan programs and conservation programs such as CRP and EQIP. The loans afford farmers better lending potential when planning crop seasons, and conservation programs help make the most of resources while still providing producer benefits.
But not all of the elements of existing programs are useful in today's operations, they agreed.
"Some of our loan rates were set at levels comparable to prices in 1981," said Ricky Bearden, one of the panelists who farms cotton, peanuts, black-eyed peas, sorghum and wheat in Plains. "Imagine basing your business transactions today on what they were worth back in 1981."
As the economics of size have forced full-time farmers to become ever larger, payment limitationsalthough politically popularare often impractical.
"In order to stay viable we had to get larger," said Brian Boehning, who farms and ranches 3,000 acres near Muleshoe, including about 3,500 head of dairy cows. "But the program limits of the dairy programs account for about 10 days production in a 365-day operation."
Instead of talking limitations, Boehning said, Congress should draft policies to ensure farm funding stays in production agriculture, such as better differentiating commercial operations from lifestyle farms.
Cong. Randy Naugebauer agreed. "Whenever we start taking farm program dollars away from production, that's when subsidies and the like become an issue."
Farm programs also need to do more to encourage young farmers and ranchers into the profession, panelists agreed. Given the rising age of producers nationwide, farm policy needs to invest in the future, both in better situating younger generations for land and capital acquisition and continuing various commodity research programs.
Nowhere do any of the current policies address outright crop failures, panelists said. Although crop insurance programs offer some level of security for immediate year losses, they do not account for long-term problems such as drought.
"In many parts of our state, farmers just can't get right," said Jack Norman, a wheat, corn, soybean and cattle producer from Howe. "They're carrying losses for last year and the year before. Without some sort of assistance, they have a hard time refinancing and carrying on."
But in addressing crop program shortfalls, many of the livestock producers cautioned against drawing policies too restrictive, particularly if new alternative fuel initiatives are tied to farm bill.
"Cattle feeders use three out of every four bushels of grain produced in the United States, and if we start dictating where those grains are best used, we'll wind up increasing the costs to cattlemen," said Dale Smith, an Amarillo rancher and cattle feeder.
Most agreed that all energy issueseven those tied to increased grain sorghum production for ethanolshould be dealt with independently of the farm policy.
But whatever the final product, financing a new farm bill will be a major issue for Congress, said Cong. Bob Goodlatte, who chaired the San Angelo hearing.
"They were dealing with surplus budget situations in the 2002 Farm Bill," he said. "Now we're facing deficit budgets. The bottom line will be a major point of contention."