Helping Congress write a farm bill the president can sign remains the top priority, but the federal government should be looking beyond the traditional safety net of farm programs to make U.S. agriculture competitive, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said.

Congressional leaders and administration officials are continuing to try to find a way to pass a new farm bill by March 15, the date the latest extension of the current law runs out. Reports differed about how close the sides were to an agreement.

Acknowledging he is a “term-limited” secretary working for a president who has less than a year left in office, Schafer said procrastination is not something the administration will be able to indulge in on the farm bill or any of the myriad issues confronting the country.

“I’ve got a short time here, so a lot of things are on the agenda,” said Schafer, the former governor of North Dakota and telecommunications executive who spoke at USDA’s annual Agriculture Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va.

“At the top of the list is working with Congress to deliver a farm bill the president can proudly sign. That means a bill that preserves a strong safety net for producers and achieves real reforms in farm policy and does it without imposing new taxes on American citizens.”

Schafer ticked off sound domestic farm policies, fighting barriers that keep U.S. producers out of foreign markets, vigilance about the safety of food products from domestic or foreign sources as actions the government must take to meet the demands of the global economy.

“But having the right structure of public policies in place may also mean looking beyond the traditional safety net of marketing loans, crop insurance and disaster aid,” Schafer said.

“That can mean taking a look at new policies such as accelerated depreciation of farm equipment or tax credits for carbon sequestration, repealing the death tax on family farms. These public policy directions can do more for many of today’s farmers than a bump in prices or loan rates can do.”

Schafer said farmers and ranchers and rural residents today must have full access to the knowledge and skills that they need to “compete vigorously and successfully in the global economy.

“That means making sure that our rural communities have the infrastructure in place that will allow the 60 million Americans who live there to participate fully in the new economy and to achieve the same quality of life of their fellow citizens who live in the urban and suburban areas.”

That could turn on bringing adequate broadband access to rural areas, said Schafer, who founded Extend America, a company that provides wireless voice and high-speed data services in five Midwestern states after leaving the North Dakota governor’s office.

“If we go back 100 years to the way life was lived on farms around this country and compare it to the way it is today, it is unimaginable,” said Schafer, who was sworn in as secretary on the day of President Bush’s state of the union address.

“From the backbreaking work of plowing fields with a team of mules or horses, today’s farmer is likely to be driving a $250,000 air-conditioned combine, and at the same time he’s checking the futures on the markets and watching the latest weather forecast from the cab in that tractor.”

The secretary said farming is more of a white-collar, managerial occupation than ever before. “The skills required are a lot more than just pulling calves and being able to do a hard day's work. Today you have to know something about distribution and accounting, you have to be adept at transportation and computers, and you have to have an education and skills to deal with the complexities of today's marketplace.

“Our farmers need to succeed, and they must take full advantage of the opportunities that the market offers them, and they must be skilled and resourceful at controlling the costs of their own operations.”

To take full advantage of the nation’s demand for energy crops, farmers will also have to be able to work their way through the complexities of the energy and agriculture programs devised in Washington.

“We’ve been known to change them from year to year as well just to kind of keep you on a steep learning curve. But we hope that those policies as developed are leading the opportunities in the agriculture arena.”

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