Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer best known for the classic, “Gulliver's Travels,” also wrote what is to this day the definitive work of satire, “A Modest Proposal.” Written as an attack on the indifference of landlords to the plight of their tenants, it proposes that poor Irish families sell their children to be eaten, thereby earning income for the family.
Thus the origin of the phrase, “a modest proposal,” which usually means that a proposal goes too far in its recommendations, or that it proposes radical action for a situation that requires a far more subtle remedy.
In that sense, and in all fairness, the Bush Administration's recent farm bill proposal certainly can't be labeled “a modest proposal,” at least not in the literary sense. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the new chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, probably summed up the plan best when he said, “I have to say it is better than what I thought it was going to be.” That appears to be the opinion of many in the farming community.
The proposal certainly doesn't go as far as some had feared, especially considering the current dismal state of the federal budget, or the continuing pressure from some WTO members. Nevertheless, there are some who are taking issue with certain provisions in the proposal, especially the ones pertaining to farm payment income limitations and the three-entity rule.
If you're wondering why there isn't more jumping up and down and gnashing of teeth over this proposal, it's because this is a long way…a very long way…from being a done deal. Debates in the Senate and House have barely begun. But there are groups, such as the American Corn Growers Association, who have pulled no punches in declaring the proposal is the “wrong direction for the future of U.S. agricultural policy.”
The most disturbing provision advanced by the proposal, states the association, is the formula for recalculating the commodity support rates of the marketing assistance loan — it would cut the corn loan rate by 15 cents per bushel.
The National Cotton Council, on the other hand, was more diplomatic in its response to the proposal, reiterating its support “for maintaining a farm program that provides a viable safety net and meets the needs of all segments of the industry.” While the farm bill proposal continues a “basic structure for commodity programs similar to the 2002 farm bill,” the Council stated it was concerned with several provisions, “among which are the additional constraints imposed on benefit eligibility.”
The American Farm Bureau was equally subdued in its response, stating the administration's plan, “contributes to the debate surrounding the structure and funding of the nation's next farm program, and the American Farm Bureau will analyze the proposal carefully as part of its effort to secure a new farm law that provides the best opportunities for its members. Farm Bureau members from across the country have repeatedly and strongly emphasized the need to keep the 2007 farm bill consistent and very similar to the concepts in the current bill. We are keeping an open mind about the administration's proposal and intend to give it full consideration.”
The administration's farm bill proposal might be more notable for the issues it fails to address adequately, such as renewable fuels. It does provide $1.6 billion in new funding for renewable energy research, development and production, but it offers little direction or long-range planning for the renewable fuels industry, especially ethanol.
These are heady days for the ethanol industry, with almost weekly groundbreakings for new refineries. Meanwhile, farmers are enjoying the best corn prices they've seen in a decade, with no end in sight.
But some market watchers are warning of “too much, too soon” and are calling for a moratorium on refineries, similar to the one the world's No. 3 ethanol producer — China — announced this past December. This might sound a bit drastic, but it's clear the industry is in need of some sort of national strategy to guide its future growth, and perhaps the new farm bill can provide it.
All in all, if the administration's proposal represents a starting place for farm bill negotiations, then it could have been much worse.