Some good news: Agriculture in the South is set to get a boost of legislative gravitas and influence in 2013.

With Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran as new ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor chairing the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development, “I don’t think there’s any question the Mid-South and South will have more influence than they had (in 2012),” said Joe Outlaw, Texas A&M agricultural economist, at the Ag Business Conference at Arkansas State University (ASU).

“If you watched the hearing and mark-up process for the (farm bill) last year, it was one where a lot of the Southern interests were basically left quite unhappy.

“When they finally conference two bills, I think there will be a lot of changes from what either (of the earlier bills) contain right now.”

Outlaw was joined by David Schweikhardt, professor of Agriculture Economics at Michigan State University, and Tom Erickson, vice-president for government and industry affairs for Bunge North America, in a panel/audience discussion regarding the current political landscape in Washington, D.C.

“It is increasingly true that the politics of the farm bill have become very much a part of the politics of Washington and the political life there,” said Erickson on the inability of Congress to pass a new farm bill last session. “That’s something a lot of organizations failed to see going into this year.”

A member of the audience asked the trio about updating the farm bill set-up. “We’re still using an antique model farm bill. We have more diversity and more difficulty passing something. I often wonder why we don’t have a new idea.”

Texas A&M’s Agricultural and Food Policy Center, “did about 35 different analyses of different plans that people have come up with,” said Outlaw. “This was a farm bill where groups came up with somewhat different proposals. But the fact of the matter is, we only have a certain number of levers to switch if you’re going to help people stay in business. Most of them are linked to the land, prices, and yields.

“Initially, the groups went away and did the ‘big thinking.’ But it always evolves back down to what’s available, what data is available. That isn’t necessarily right, but that’s how it was done. There was a lot of new thought” for the new farm bill compared to the 2008 farm bill.

Schweikhardt said many of the old policies that were the most market-distorting are gone. “When students sometimes come to me and want to talk about, ‘Gosh, there must be a better way to do X or Y,’ we usually have a long talk. ‘Well, there are only so many levers you can pull on — usually connected to price and quantity.’ So, I’m not sure we’ll see a lot of newness there.

“I do think we’ve got to continue to push on the research side, to continue to work on crop insurance products that work and are actuarially sound. That’s where a lot of the focus, if nothing new comes along, will continue to be.”

Erickson pointed out there was “significant change in 1996 with ‘Freedom to Farm.’ From there have been evolutionary changes more in the pattern prior to 1996.”

There’s also the issue, “certainly in the Midwest, that existing program payments are so out of line with market prices,” said Schweikhardt. “I don’t know that (the region) marshaled their political muscle as much as they might have. On the list farmers are thinking and spending time worrying about, farm programs aren’t very high, right now.

“I think Congress, when they went home and hadn’t passed the farm bill, might not have gotten the pressure they’d have gotten in past years. That’s simply because of where (current crop) prices are.”