The House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities caught most of the agriculture community by surprise when it approved a five-year extension of the 2002 law during a mark-up session for the commodity title of the new farm bill.

Subcommittee leaders okayed some amendments and promised more changes to the legislation, but its members' refusal to make more than simple alterations drew howls of protests from conservation and environmental groups that had been demanding a major overhaul of the farm bill.

Later, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson issued a statement defending the subcommittee's action and promising to continue to work on new proposals when the full committee takes up the farm bill after the July 4 recess.

“The proposals approved today by the Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management reflect the message we heard loud and clear from farmers and ranchers nationwide — the structure of the 2002 farm bill works for them,” said Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat.

“We will continue to develop proposals on rebalancing and reform in farm programs that will build on this good foundation as we move forward. The Agriculture Committee has a tough job ahead, but I am committed to continuing a process that is open and allows for a complete debate of all the important issues involved in writing a farm bill.”

Both Peterson and General Farm Commodities Subcommittee Chairman Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., had offered a lengthy list of changes for the commodity title that would have reduced the marketing loan rates for cotton, corn and grain sorghum by 2 cents per pound and per bushel, increased target prices for soybeans and wheat and required direct attribution for farm program payments.

But Etheridge announced during a mark-up session for the farm bill's commodity title June 19 he was bringing up an amendment that was a “pure extension of the 2002 farm bill.”

Other committee members who had planned to make additional changes in the current law, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, lined up in support of Etheridge's amendment.

“As I indicated in my opening statement, I have had a desire for some time to do something in addition to extending the current farm bill,” said Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., ranking member on the subcommittee. “I have thought from the beginning it was not a matter of turning this over to the WTO to determine what farm policy should be in the United States.

“But I think that because of the budget circumstance we find ourselves in an extension of the current farm bill is the best outcome for the farmers, ranchers and consumers in this country. I clearly believe the current farm bill is good farm policy. I voted for it, and I supported it.”

Etheridge said the extension will help the subcommittee meet its goal of preserving the safety net for farmers that was restored when Congress passed the 2002 farm bill. He and other members said the safety net was lost with the passage of the 1996 freedom to farm bill.

“Every member on the subcommittee is sincerely interested in improving the safety net for our nation's hard-working farmers,” said Etheridge. “Our challenge is to accomplish that goal with a smaller baseline and without any new resources.”

Moran said he wished the subcommittee could do more to make improvements in the 2002 farm bill. But the budget provided the committee — which includes a 58 percent reduction in the baseline for the commodity title — makes an extension of the current law the better option.

“When we passed the 2002 farm bill, we were successful in increasing the baseline over the previous farm bill by $40 to $50 billion,” he said. “This year we're presented with a reduction in the baseline of $60 billion.”

Farm organizations were divided in their reaction to the vote with the National Cotton Council and USA Rice Federation supportive of the move. The National Corn Growers Association and conservation groups such as American Farmland Trust were generally negative.

Some of the strongest criticism of the vote came from Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which recently unveiled the names of 350,000 previously unidentified farm program payment recipients on its Web site.