The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 still has two years to run before it expires in 2007. But you might have thought Congress was writing a new farm bill next week, judging from the comments heard at USDA's first Farm Bill Forum.

The four-hour session, broadcast live from the Nashville facilities of RFD-TV, attracted a standing-room-only studio audience of more than 400 persons, mostly from Tennessee and Alabama, and 39 phone calls from 26 states.

“The response we heard this evening met or exceeded our expectations,” said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, talking with reporters after co-hosting the listening forum with farm broadcaster Orion Samuelson. “This becomes the platform on which we talk about the next farm bill.”

Although Congress won't get down to the serious business of writing the 2007 farm bill until next year, Johanns announced in April that USDA would conduct a series of farm bill listening sessions to begin laying the groundwork for the new law.

Johanns announced the dates for three more Farm Bill Forums at the beginning of the first in Nashville on July 7. Those will be at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot, July 26; the Minnesota Farm Fest in Redwood County, Aug. 3; and the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, Aug. 4. More will be held later.

He said the Bush administration plans to play a more aggressive role in drafting the 2007 farm bill than it did in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act that the president signed on May 13, 2002.

The Forum's suggestions for the next farm bill ran the gamut from staying the course with the 2002 law to returning to the parity provisions of the farm bills in the 1930s and 1940s. In between, members of the audience and viewers urged Congress to permanently repeal the “death” tax and create agricultural zones with separate environmental regulations.

“Since we passed the new farm law in 2002, it has come under constant criticism,” said John Willis, a cotton, corn and soybean producer from Brownsville, Tenn., who attended the live broadcast. “But we are spending much less for this farm bill than was originally projected.”

The new law is a “bargain for consumers,” he said. “When I started farming in 1975, consumers were spending 15 to 17 percent of their income for food. Now, 30 years later, it's 9 to 10 percent. But our prices haven't risen accordingly.”

Several speakers referred to President Bush's July 7 promise to work to end all agricultural subsidies by 2010 if other countries would end theirs and provide market access for other countries' agricultural products.

“I would urge you to stay the course with the current farm bill and not make changes until we see the kinds of concessions other countries are willing to make in the Doha WTO negotiations, particularly in market access,” said Harris Armour, a cotton and soybean producer from Somerville, Tenn.

“We need to maintain our poker face and not show our cards until we see how the Doha Round negotiations are going,” he told reporters after his two minutes during the Forum. “I'm not sure we can survive if we do away with the marketing loan and counter-cyclical payments.”

Another west Tennessee cotton farmer expressed reservations about continuing the current law, however. Jason Luckey of Humboldt said some landlords in his area raised cash rents after learning about the direct payments in the 2002 farm bill.

“Essentially, that farm bill increased our land values so that it negated any benefits that I received because I'm paying more in rent,” he said. “Instead of direct payments, tie farm payments to production so that the benefits stay with the farmer instead of being capitalized into the rent payments.”

Luckey urged Johanns to work to keep the Freedom to Farm and conservation provisions in the next farm bill. “Our land can easily become overworked by growing one particular crop,” he noted. “We need the flexibility of Freedom to Farm.”

In his post-Forum meeting with reporters, Johanns said he was struck by the opposing views on the benefits of farm programs.

“It's a mix,” he said. “You have some people who come up and say, ‘Gosh, I really like the farm bill, let's not change anything.’ Then you have people who say ‘I had high hopes, but cash rents went so high so it hasn't panned out for me.

He said the 2002 farm bill was necessary because agriculture was in recession. “But people showed up tonight and began asking some serious, significant questions about whether this is the right platform and where we go from here? That's what these Forums are about. It's to flesh out those ideas and get people to start thinking about what the next farm bill should look like.”

Asked what was the most intriguing thing he heard during the Forum, Johanns said it occurred to him near the end of the four-hour session just how much difference of opinion exists on the next farm bill.

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