Farmers have been promised a new farm bill. However, it remains a mirage while Congress is on Easter break and the Bush administration continues its hard-line approach to funding.

Prior to signing an extension of current law through April 18, President Bush said there’d be no more short-term extensions. If Congress can’t supply a bill he’s willing to sign by mid-April, Bush warned he’d push for a yearlong extension.

Perhaps emboldened by Bush’s lame-duck status and current agriculture commodity prices, farm advocates don’t seem terribly bothered by the White House threat.

“I think it’s more pressure to get things done,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, policy specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, during a March 18 AgriTalk interview. “But I think there’s a real chance we could have this bill done in the next three or four weeks. It’ll take the efforts of everyone to get that done.

“But you also have to remember that it’s a bit difficult to (figure out) how you’d pass a one-year extension — especially on the House floor — when there are conservation, fruit and vegetable, and nutrition groups all getting significantly more money in (the proposed) bills than in the 2002 bill.”

There would be little incentive for the aforementioned groups to push for an extension. “So, while people are talking about it, I think it’s fairly unlikely you could do a simple extension of the 2002 farm bill.”

Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, largely agrees. During a March 18 press conference Buis was asked if a baseline bill would be preferable to an extension of current law.

“No, it’d set up a food fight. Everyone will be grabbing for what little revenue there is. Keep in mind: the current farm bill was a success and saved the taxpayers $23 billion dollars. Now, we’re in a sea of red ink. If all the other federal programs were as fiscally responsible we’d have a budget surplus, not a deficit.”

Consider all the new demands that have developed in the last five years, said Buis. “First, nutrition programs are woefully inadequate. There are 26 million people who need food assistance daily. (They average) $1 per day — that hasn’t been indexed or updated for inflation in (15 years). They need help.”

Second, conservation program demands have increased. “Everyone wants to protect air, water and soil. They won’t sit back and stay with baseline funding.”

Third, fruit and vegetable producers are demanding billions of dollars. “They feel they’ve been left out in the past and won’t (allow) another farm bill to pass without increases.”

Fourth, renewable energy needs to be shepherded. “A lot of people tell me they want to move into cellulosic ethanol and the like. Much of the research and development (funds for that) is contained in this farm bill.”

John Gordley, Washington representative of the American Soybean Association says a new farm bill must be passed. “Some wheat will be cut at the end of April. That’s sort of an action-forcing deadline…It’s almost that we had to get the frustration index up high enough — and we’re about there.

“A lot of people have asked why (with such high commodity prices), farmers need a safety net. Our response is you don’t take an air bag out of a car. So, when prices tail off — and they will — there (needs to be) a net to catch farmers and provide stability.”

What about concerns that once current budget concerns are resolved policy disputes remain?

“There are a lot of policy issues in a 1,600-page bill,” said Thatcher. “But the big ticket items — are we going to cut direct payments, what to do about payment limits, will more money go to conservation security or EQIP or the CSP — are the sort of questions that can’t be answered until you know what the numbers are. Not just the $10 billion (in dispute), but individual (figures) in each of the bill titles.”

Acknowledging that money is tight, Buis insisted rural America must not be shorted investment funds. Such an approach has already been tried. “It was called ‘Freedom to Farm’ in 1996. That ended up costing a lot more money and ended up being the most expensive farm program — and biggest failure — ever.”

An extension of the 2002 farm bill would “set up a fight over available revenues. The bottom line on that is the commodity title would be gutted. A baseline bill would be much the same.

“The only reasonable alternative is to get a farm bill done. You know, (locating) $10 billion out of a $3 trillion annual budget shouldn’t be hard to do. Actually, over five years, the annual budget would be $15 trillion.”

A new baseline bill “may shift things — but it would be like shifting chairs on the Titanic. That ship is going down because there’s not enough revenue.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com