U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) received a request for more of the same for the 2008 farm bill at the first of several hearings to be held throughout the country. Chambliss, along with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), hosted the meeting at Albany State University in Albany, Ga., on June 23.

At the hearing, Southeast farmers were given a chance to plead their wants and needs before the two-senator panel as they make their national tour of hearings and eventually head back to Washington to work on a new bill.

Three panels representing various Southeastern crops spoke before Chambliss and Roberts and then were asked a series of questions by the senators. Some of the central issues included incentives for farmers, payment limitations, global trade and renewable energy.

“These hearings are a valuable opportunity for direct dialogue between farmers and the agriculture committee and for folks in the surrounding region to share how they would like to see farm policy shaped as we write the next farm bill,” Chambliss said. “This is going to be a critical year for agriculture.”

The panels represented a wide diversity of agriculture. The senators heard from farmers and representatives from the soybean, cotton, corn, peanut, specialty crop, sugar, milk, cattle, pork and poultry industries. Several representatives emphasized the importance of maintaining diversity with adequate legislation.

“Southern farmers need a farm bill that favors diversification,” said Ray Cobb, president of the Georgia Corn Growers Association. “Crop diversity is important for the economy of our rural communities. Diversity helps us control pests and keep our yields up. In general, the 2002 farm bill has worked well, and I believe you can use our current bill as a foundation to develop an even better new farm bill.”

The prospect of making a bill diverse at the level necessary in the Southeast is hard enough, but it is compounded when several industries ask for fewer payment limitations and larger subsidies, he said.

Armond Morris, chairman of the Georgia Peanut Commission, made the point that French citizens pay nearly double the percentage of their expendable income on food. “The American consumer is getting a bargain,” Morris said.

Roberts conceded that while it is important to note that the American public is getting “a hell of a bargain,” it is not as simple as doubling the price of crops to the consumer.

“It is the best quality food at the most inexpensive price — not cheap — the most inexpensive price in the history of the world,” Roberts said. “It is one of the greatest success stories you can imagine.”

Global trade dealing with challenges by the World Trade Organization (WTO) was a central issue to the hearing as well. Mark Detweiler, a representative from the American Soybean Association, proposed changing parts of the 2002 farm bill to solve problems presented by the WTO.

“In order to avoid sanctions, the U.S. will need to change the direct payment program to eliminate the planting restriction of fruit and vegetable crops,” Detweiler said. “Also, both the marketing loan and counter-cyclical programs were found to cause ‘serious prejudice,’ and could be subject to other cases for other crops, including soybeans.”

Detweiler proposed using an insurance-type program to achieve a more effective safety net for producers across the Southeast. He advised the senators to retain the marketing loan, direct payments and the counter-cyclical program while adding an insurance program not only to aid farmers but to become more WTO compliant.

Another issue surfaced by several witnesses at the hearing was the issue of renewable energy. Murray Campbell, chairman of First United Ethanol, LLC., represented the ethanol industry. When asked where congress should focus its efforts to help farmers participate in the growth of the industry, Campbell said the agriculture industry should be ready to help win the war on terror by supporting American energy independence.

He listed several different ways of producing ethanol and biodiesel, but he said the most readily available resource is corn.

“Corn yields are increasing and ethanol production leaves a substantial portion of refined corn per bushel for use in the feed market,” Campbell says. “The continued trend in increased ethanol efficiency, coupled with increased corn yields, and new genetics for highly fermentable corns will lead to considerable gain in ethanol per acre.”

Campbell said increasing a clause about renewable energy in the next farm bill will send an important message to the agricultural community. Right now, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), there are 32 ethanol plants under construction. The RFA estimates that that by the end of the year there could be more than 5.7 billion gallons of production capacity throughout the nation.

From the corn growers' perspective, Cobb said growers need governmental protection if there is to be a commitment on their part to ethanol production. “We need protection as we build the technology and infrastructure to become independent of other countries' energy sources,” Cobb says.

Roberts asked Campbell how he plans to get the infrastructure in place for ethanol production and distribution, especially if Americans are expected to pay more for renewable fuels. Campbell explained that as plants begin to start production at a higher level — assuming oil prices continue to hold or rise in price — the price of ethanol will level off and eventually decrease.

“We are ready to produce corn based ethanol now,” Campbell said. “And you don't use up every bushel of corn in producing fuel. You are going to return at least one-third of it back into the feed markets, and I think that's important.”

One glaring issue that was almost entirely dodged at the hearing was the immigration issue. “That's an issue we could have a whole hearing about,” said Chambliss.

While the hearing was just a preliminary step towards the new farm bill, Chambliss was impressed by the turnout and accomplishment by the Southeastern hearing.

“All of this testimony will help us establish a record about what's working in the Southeast with the current farm bill and what changes we need to make,” the chairman said. “We've got a long way to go yet.”