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. As we move to the full committee we will continue to strengthen the safety net to ensure that farmers can provide a plentiful food supply for the American family’s table.”

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.

“Today, the House subcommittee with responsibility for federal crop subsidy policy voted to extend for another five years the very same unfair, dysfunctional subsidy policies that were put in place by the widely discredited 2002 farm bill,” said Cook.

“The vote is Exhibit A in the case for not letting farm subsidy policies by decided by the subsidized. The subcommittee asked itself: Is the current inequitable crop subsidy system the best that we can do with billions of dollars of taxpayer’ money? And the subcommittee answered unanimously: Yup!”

The Environmental Defense’s Scott Faber also blasted the subcommittee both in a statement and in a new blog he said he plans to issue periodically to share his opinions on the 2007 farm bill.

Faber, director of the Environmental Defense Farm and Food Policy Campaign, is a supporter of legislation introduced by Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., which would replace the current three-pronged, direct and counter-cyclical payment and marketing assistance program with a managed savings account approach.

The subcommittee voted to reject the Kind-Flake amendment along with a farm program buyout proposal offered by CitiGroup Corp., and the Bush administration’s USDA farm bill language.

“I have talked to numerous farmers in my district in Kansas, and there is no support for any of these proposals,” said Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Democrat. “Questions have also been raised about the impact of a farm program buyout on tenant farmers, young farmers, farmers who elect not to participate and on the health of the rural economy.”

Etheridge told Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner, who attended the subcommittee business meeting, that USDA “hasn’t convinced the American farmer that you have the right idea for agriculture” in its farm bill proposal.

National Cotton Council leaders were pleased the subcommittee voted to reject the preliminary discussion draft its staff circulated before the June 19 meeting. The draft included provisions that would have reduced the base loan to 50 cents, the target price to 70 cents and imposed direct attribution on direct and counter- cyclical payments.

After it approved Etheridge’s amendment to extend the current law, the subcommittee then adopted an amendment by Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., that contained a majority of the recommendations adopted by the National Cotton Council’s board of directors to make U.S. cotton more competitive in world markets.

The provisions require USDA to establish loan premiums and discounts for the 2008 and subsequent crops using spot market data weighted by production; to modify the calculation of the weekly AWP to more accurately reflect the competitive environment; and, provide a competitiveness payment to domestic mills for all upland cotton consumed.

Under the provisions of the subcommittee bill, the upland cotton program for 2008 and subsequent crops would include a 52-cent base loan; a 6.67-cent direct payment; and 68.61-cent target price. The payment base and yield used for direct and counter-cyclical payments are unchanged. Payment limitations are unchanged and the extra-long-staple program is extended in its entirety.

“The original draft wrongly isolated cotton by attacking loan rates and target prices,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, a subcommittee member. “I have previously stated that any attempt to isolate one commodity is unacceptable. Cotton should not be unfairly singled out and made a poster child for reform.”

Instead, he said, the Committee and Congress need to construct farm policy that provides both stability and predictability while accurately reflecting the needs for all farmers in the state of Texas and across the nation.

“The 2002 Farm Bill has provided an effective and efficient safety net for agriculture over the last several years,” he said. “We must allow our farmers to continue to provide the American consumer with the most abundant and affordable food and fiber supply in the world.”

Besides Etheridge’s substitute amendment, the subcommittee approved following amendments:

• Rep. Marshall’s amendment to adjust premiums and discounts associated with cotton under loan, to recalculate the adjusted world price of cotton based on Far East markets as opposed to Northern European markets, and to provide economic assistance cotton users.

• Rep. Charles Boustany’s second-degree amendment to the Jim Marshall amendment to separate the marketing loans, loan rates, and target prices for long grain and medium/short grain rice.

• An amendment offered by Boustany, R-La., to make technical corrections to the target price and loan rate for rice.

• Rep. Boyda’s amendment to establish a single corn and sorghum loan rate in each county.

• Indiana Congressman Brad Ellsworth’s amendment to create a pilot program in Indiana to allow for the planting of tomatoes grown and contracted for processing on up to 10,000 base acres, reducing base acres on an acre-by-acre basis for each acre of tomatoes planted.

• Moran's amendment expressing the sense of Congress that money used to fund programs under the Subcommittee's jurisdiction should not be transferred to fund programs authorized or reauthorized under any other title of the farm bill.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com