The United States will not let the WTO write its next farm bill. However, export markets must be given careful consideration as new farm legislation takes shape.

That's as much assurance as Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns was willing to give a south Georgia crowd that future farm policy would not be dictated by the demands of world trading partners. The USDA Farm Bill Forum was held during this year's Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga.

“We have an interesting situation in the United States, more than interesting,” said Johanns. “In fact, in some respects, it's an economic life or death situation for farmers. The situation is this. Our farmers and ranchers are the most productive in the history of mankind. They just always find a way year after year to get a little bit better than the year before. We are growing our agricultural productivity by about 2 percent a year,” he said

The challenge, says Johanns, is that U.S. consumption is growing at less than 1 percent a year. “If you chart that out over a decade, you'd begin to see the dynamic that you're dealing with. You just have a terrific imbalance,” he said.

In addition, he said, 95 percent of the world's population doesn't live in the United States. “Ninety-five percent of the customer base for the products you raise is outside of the United States. Now, I'll ask you to consider one last thing. Twenty-seven percent of your income already comes from the export market, and in some areas it's even more significant. The important issue for us is that we do trade in a way that recognizes that this dynamic is here and provides an opportunity not only for you today but in the future,” said Johanns.

The Step-2 Program in cotton ran into problems in a WTO ruling, he said. “Some of you may push back and say, well, wait a minute here, what about that? Again, I will point out to you that this export market, for cotton especially, is an enormously important market. We've got to pay attention to it. Those are the things that we are working with. We say over and over again, we're not going to let the WTO run or write our farm bill, but we're also going to be mindful of the fact that we need to continue to build this export market,” said Johanns.

Also at the farm bill hearing, Georgia U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told farmers that conservation programs would be expanded in the next farm bill.

“As we move into the next farm bill, I'm very confident of the fact that the conservation programs that we have in place today are not only going to be expanded, but we're going to look at some other alternatives in conservation. As we look at being WTO compliant, it's going to be necessary that we have more of those green-box and blue-box items, and conservation programs fit into those boxes,” said Chambliss.

Van Murphy, a farmer from Brooks County, Ga., and manager of BCT Gin Company, said at the hearing that the 2002 farm bill has worked well for growers in Georgia and the Southeast. “The current program provides an important safety net for production agriculture, and it does so in a responsible manner. Spending under the farm bill is much less than originally projected, as you well know,” said Murphy.

Counter-cyclical payments along with direct payments and the marketing loan program protect farmers from fickle weather and commodity markets while allowing them to respond to market signals, he added.

“Today, farmers face a lot of great risks, a lot more than other business people out there. Many factors are beyond the farmer's control. An effective farm program is essential for providing stable production, financing and marketing. We're looking forward to the new farm bill, and it's vital that the U.S. maintain a stable, predictable and equitable farm policy,” he said.

In addition to a number of row-crop farmers, several vegetable producers spoke at the Georgia farm bill hearing about their needs and concerns.

Bill Brim, a vegetable producer from Tifton, Ga., shared his concerns on the issue of securing legal farm labor. Brim owns Lewis Taylor Farms which grows about 3,000 acres of produce and employs about 450 people.

“Right now, labor is the No. 1 question that we're dealing with for our next generation. Labor is going to be our problem, and it's one of the most critical issues facing both today's generation and our future generation of fresh-market produce growers,” said Brim.

“For the last eight years, we've been working with the people from Georgia, with Southeast vegetable farmers, with congressional delegations, with various U.S. agencies, the Farm Bureau — about what's going to happen and what kind of problems we're having securing a legal and dependable labor workforce. The fact that approximately 90 percent of our workforce is undocumented is a pretty good indication that our efforts so far have failed,” he said.

Brim said many growers in the H2A Program have access to a legal workforce, but that prohibitive costs and excessive litigation make the program “virtually unworkable.” The program, he added, required growers to pay an “adverse effect” wage of $8.07, in addition to free housing and free transportation.

Ken Hamilton, a Colquitt County, Ga., vegetable producer said the dynamics of American agriculture are changing. “In 2004, specialty crop production in the United States was valued at $55.9 billion. That represents over 50 percent of the total plant agriculture in the United States. However, more than 90 percent of the funds in our commodity programs focus on traditional crops. Food and vegetable crops are typically characterized by high production input costs and very unique and volatile market conditions.

“We look to the 2007 farm bill to help address some of these issues for our industry — not by creating direct program payment to growers, but in support of research, conservation and marketing programs. One of the issues that we must address in 2007 is payment limitations and conservation program participation based on annual gross revenues,” said Hamilton.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com