As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee — and chair of the Production, Income Protection and Price Support Subcommittee — Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln has been in the thick of crafting a new farm bill. When she spoke with Southeast Farm Press , the Democrat expressed frustration with the seeming “snail’s pace” in the bill’s final phase of deal making. However, she said good legislation was still possible by mid-April. Among her comments:

On hearing from farmers/lenders nervous about the situation…

“We’re hearing story after story of farmers…going to their lender and the lender wanting to know what they can expect, what the law will be.

“We’ve extended (current law) through April 18. But folks are starting to get in the field now. They need to know what to expect.

“Prices are good but, as I remind my colleagues in (D.C.), they may be good now but input costs are almost double what they’ve been. Whether it’s the cost of fuel — which continues to go up — fertilizer, seed or chemical application. And that’s if you can (locate a supply)…

“We’re just trying to figure out how to get that message to Washington, the common sense. They may not think (such a situation) hurts, but it does because our farm families, our producers must make a plan. With all the needs they face and must provide for, every one of them is uncertain. That uncertainty certainly (filters) down to the bankers.”

Are you hearing any news, or signals, on payments limits? On where the money available will go in terms of titles?

“We came to an agreement that $10 billion over baseline would be a number to start with. So, then, they had to begin looking at allocations.

“The problem is if you get too far afield…it starts looking as though people are overreaching. We’re going to have to come back to square one and say ‘we had a great compromise and a very balanced bill. We don’t need to get too far from that.’

“From our standpoint, (the Senate version of the farm bill) was balanced in terms of region, in terms of titles. There were plus-ups in areas (being demanded like) conservation, nutrition, energy, and rural development. We were able to work parts of the commodity title to kind of maintain a strong safety net with reforms.”

President Bush said “No more short-term extensions of the 2002 bill. We’ll go with a year-long extension from here.” How close is the bill to being done by April 18?

“I believe we’re very close. I believe the majority of the farm-state senators — those that represent heavily agricultural areas of the nation — (already agree). The problem is we have many members that don’t come from farm states or agricultural areas. They want to change the farm bill into something it’s not…

“So we need a bit of muscle to push this thing over the line. That means folks that want to change the bill into something that, frankly, is weighted in (certain) areas (must compromise)…

“I think a yearlong extension is absolutely irresponsible. It’s irresponsible for the president to push for it or say it would be acceptable. The (Bush) administration has a great opportunity to come to the table here. We’ve bent over backwards to meet every one of their concerns as they’ve brought them to us — how we pay for it, the amount we use, the reforms they need. We’ve bent over backwards to meet their concerns. Every time we get where they want us to be, they come up with another.

“At some point, people must realize this country depends on hard-working farm families. We go to the grocery store and it’s a luxury. Many countries (don’t have) grocery stores with a safe, abundant and affordable supply of food.

“(The farm bill) is a tremendous insurance program. It ensures that, as the global community and economy move into new, uncharted waters in the new century, we maintain a safe domestic supply of food.

“We’re at a crossroads. In the next several years, we can move towards more dependence on imported. But I have to believe, with Americans seeing what that (kind of set-up) is doing to our gas prices and understanding our dependency on imported oil, that they won’t want to contract out our food supply.

“People must be rational and understand the original intent of the farm bill. Yes, we can expand and modernize it. But…some will have to realign their thoughts because there’s a lot at stake here. Too many…want to make it into something new and glamorous. No problem, but don’t forget its original intent and purpose.”

On dynamics in Congress and the biggest hold-up for a new farm bill…

“I think if you go back and look, you’ll find that the people representing farming America — areas or states heavily in agriculture — have come to agreement, have worked out differences…

The biggest hold-ups we have (are often due) to those who don’t understand farm bill programs — and the conservation and commodity programs can be complicated in many instances. And they don’t want to take the time to understand those programs’ importance. That’s unfortunate because they end up squabbling over some minute detail that does nothing but slow the train down…

“I think a lot of members will come back from the break saying, ‘People must be fair and thoughtful. Let’s move this forward and send it to (President Bush).’

“Who knows what (Bush’s) thought of the day will be in terms of a veto. We never know because it changes from day to day.

“But I can’t believe that after all the work we’ve done, with all the bipartisanship, all the thoughtful balancing…the president would veto what we send him.”

Anything else?

“Tell your readers that their stories matter. We’ve had lots of (anecdotes) coming in.

“One (politician) was up here talking about cutting direct payments — that the payments weren’t needed because (ag commodity) prices are so high.

“There was a gentleman in central Arkansas who let us know that he uses the direct payment to buy supplies in the off-season, when prices are cheaper. However, now that (input) prices are going sky-high the direct payment won’t cover as many of those expenses.

“We cut back on the counter-cyclical program. People said, ‘Well, no one will use that.’ Well, they won’t need to since prices are high. But everyone knows that those prices won’t stay high.

“And this is a five or six-year bill. And if there is a big problem (that develops during the bill’s life), farmers need to know there are programs that will be available…

“They need to know that direct payments will be there for them…They need to know that this bill isn’t something just for this year, when prices are high. They need to know the bill is a long-term insurance plan that makes sure we have a safe, abundant, domestically supplied food source, that it provides Americans the kind of food they’ve grown accustomed to and appreciate.

“The other thing is agriculture is allowing us not to slip into a trade deficit. The trade surplus in agriculture helps be the glue in our economy...If, all of the sudden, we begin importing more food because we’ve put our farmers out of business, that will wreak havoc on our economy.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com