The 2002 farm bill was written and put into place in an era of budget surpluses. The long-delayed appropriation bills to support provisions in that bill are being drafted in a time of growing budget deficits. There is also an uncertainty about whether there will be a war to finance.

Bob Young, co-director of the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, gave the heads-up on uncertainties in farm program funding this year.

"When budgets get tight, one of the first places Congress goes looking for money is in agriculture," Young told groups of farmers meeting across Missouri in a conference call from the MU campus in Columbia.

Young recalled that cuts have happened before. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers annual rent on ground taken out of crops, was never funded to the full level of the original legislation.

There has been a shift in the party in power and changes in committee leadership in Congress since the farm bill was written, Young added. "There are new people in charge, particularly in the Senate, on several committees."

The farm bill calls for more dollars to enhance existing conservation programs, such as EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and CRP and to establish new programs such as Grassland Reserve.

The new farm bill called for $17 billion more for conservation than the previous bill. The last Congress, however, never got around to writing an appropriation bill to support those programs.

"To save money it would be easy to appropriate at lower levels than originally set," Young said. "That would generate money for other things."

The conservation programs may draw attention first, Young noted, but the high dollar amounts will be in commodity support areas.

Some senators who were the strongest advocates for conservation programs are no longer in the majority, Young noted.

"It is pure speculation on my part, but I would not be surprised to see Congress revisit the farm legislation in a couple of years," Young said.

The main action on appropriating money to support the farm bill for this fiscal year will likely be seen in the next couple of weeks, Young said.

Regardless of the budget uncertainties, Young urged farmers to sign up soon for the new commodity programs available at USDA Farm Service Agency offices across the state.

Reports from listeners in the teleconference indicate that signup under the new farm bill has been sluggish.

"At first there were some reasons for delay in signup as USDA needed to work out all of the bugs," Young said. "There is no a longer reason for delay. Now is the time to get into the local office and sign up."

The sign-up deadline is April 1.

Duane Dailey is an Extension and ag information senior writer for the University of Missouri.