We spoke last time in this space about how farmers have become so caught up in the euphoria of high prices — as well they should be — that some have tended to put the looming battle over a new farm bill on the backburner. But others, including lobbyists and commodity group officials, can’t afford the luxury.
Industry leaders like Randy Griggs, executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, are busy handicapping the newly elected Congress, evaluating the major players on both sides of the aisle, and determining who can be counted on for support when the tough negotiations begin over new farm legislation.
As everyone knows, deficit reduction is driving new budgets, and the Tea Party can take much of the credit for this renewed focus, says Griggs. A theme that ran throughout the election this past November was getting back to fiscal responsibility, with billions of dollars being spent on the national debt’s interest alone. As contrast, back in 2002, when the peanut quota buyout occurred, there was a budget surplus nationally.
Griggs tells of a CBS news survey that asked average Americans where they would like to see budget cuts made. No. 1 was reduced Social Security for the wealthy, followed by local “pork barrel” projects.
Ranking ominously in third place was farm programs or crop subsidies. To put things into perspective, says Griggs, farm programs constitute only .5 percent of the U.S. budget, and of that, 75 percent goes to nutrition programs. But the general public has a different perception, and that’s the hand agriculture has been dealt.
“We’ve seen increased spending for conservation-related programs, and that won’t go away as far as the thought process in Washington,” he says. “If you look at WTO and trade agreements, direct payments are the most WTO-compliant thing we’ve got going for us in the farm bill.”
Breaking down the individual players, in the U.S. House and Senate, there are 46 members of the House Committee on Agriculture, and over half of them are new, says Griggs.
Frank Lucas, Republican from Oklahoma, is the new chairman of the committee. “Members of the Southeast peanut industry met recently with Lucas. I was encouraged by the fact that he likes the current farm program structure and doesn’t have a problem with direct payments. Agriculture will have to do its part in deficit reduction, but so will everyone else, he says. If you go back five years, says Lucas, agriculture already has made its contribution to cutting the budget.”
Collin Peterson, Democrat from Minnesota, is the past chairman of the committee and now serves as ranking member. He will still be a player in farm bill negotiations, says Griggs.
A question on everyone’s mind is how the new GOP-controlled House will approach agriculture, says Griggs. “Lucas says you can count on close oversight of the EPA. He says they’ll ‘wear out’ the EPA. He wants to make sure they understand their boundaries, and if ag has jurisdiction, if you comply with ag laws, you shouldn’t have to worry about the EPA. Is a regulation fair, does it help farmers, is it backed by sound science, and is it economically feasible? It has been awhile since we’ve heard that.”
On the Senate side, Debbie Stabinow, Democrat of Michigan, is the chairwoman. “She was been pegged as the fruit and vegetable chairman, but in all fairness to her, Michigan is a very diverse agricultural state, and I don’t think she’ll be as bad as some fear,” says Griggs.
Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, is ranking member, and is using some of the same language as was heard in Freedom to Farm, he says.
“You’ll see the details of the next farm bill written probably in reconciliation between the Senate and the House,” says Griggs.
Priorities for USDA, he says, include biofuels, nutrition programs, and the co-existence of organic and conventional farmers. Of the latter, adds Griggs, peace in the Middle East is just as likely.
Peanuts were perceived in the 2002 farm bill as getting special treatment in terms of payment limits and storage and handling, he says, and while producers want to keep those aspects of the program, they want to avoid the perception of receiving special treatment.
Most new members on the House Committee on Agriculture have made an effort to get experienced people on their staffs, and that’s a good sign, says Griggs.