The 2012 farm bill will provide a safety net for U.S. agriculture, and that’s important for Americans in general, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official said at Virginia’s third annual Agricultural Trade Workshop.

"Farmers are helping to lead the nation’s economic recovery, but they need help in order to rebound," said Karis Gutter, acting USDA undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.

"Historically, the farm bills have responded to the needs of agriculture," he said. "We need to consider current programs but also focus on the economic differences between agriculture and other industries."

The 2008 farm bill was vetoed twice, Gutter said, and some of the most contentious debate centered on direct payments to producers. People think farmers don’t need help, he said, but agriculture is among the most unpredictable industries.

"There are economic differences between agriculture and other industries that justify federal intervention," Gutter said. And the direct payments farmers receive are a small portion of federal spending.

According to another workshop speaker, American Farm Bureau Federation Chief Economist Bob Young, the Senate Ag Committee will spend 84 percent of its fiscal year 2012 budget on nutrition programs and only 16 percent on agricultural programs. Of that amount, 7 percent will be spent on crop insurance, 5 percent on conservation programs and 4 percent on commodity payments.

Among commodity payments, 38 percent are for feed grains, 20 percent for wheat, 17 percent for cotton, 10 percent for soybeans, 7 percent for rice and 3 percent for dairy products.

The 2008 farm bill also provided help for 36,500 family farms through the Conservation Reserve Program and crop insurance for 265 million acres of farmland, "the linchpin of the farm safety net," Gutter added.

"We’ve got to support farmers in order to keep them farming."