There is an old axiom in life that is an effective comment on the act of meddling — if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it. This advice could be applied to the writing of a new farm bill, according to Paul Combs, a rice, cotton, wheat and soybean producer from Kennett, Mo.
Combs, who serves on the Missouri Rice Council and as chairman of the USA Rice Federation's Rice Producers' Group, says the rice industry, “is really happy with the current bill. It provides counter-cyclical payments when prices are low, and payments aren't paid out when prices are good. The support level of the rice loan and the world market price mechanism works. The direct payment component works. We think it's a balanced and fair approach and it works for the rice industry.”
That's one reason why Combs is advocating extension of the current bill. “But whatever happens, we think we should use the 2002 bill as a template to start from, especially in regard to the commodity title.”
According to Combs, some “initial shots across the bow” indicate that commodity organizations will have their work cut out for them. “Legislators will take a hard look at the rice and cotton loans, the counter-cyclical payment and smaller payment limits.”
There is no shortage of ideas for a new farm program, and this should make for some interesting debate, noted Combs. “The administration is pushing for a new bill; Rep. Collin Peterson, (D-Minn., who is expected to chair the House committee), indicates he likes the current bill but would like to see disaster assistance written into it; and Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been a fan of CSP, so he may have his opinion.”
WTO is another factor affecting the pace and perhaps the face, of farm policy. “The problem right now, it's hard to get a handle on where the WTO is going. We don't need to be held hostage to the WTO process. We need to write the very best farm policy we can and go from there.”
The task for the industry on all fronts, “is to educate Congress and the general public on why current farm programs are important and that it's not welfare for ‘tractor kings.’ We don't have anything to apologize for as rice farmers or cotton farmers with regard to current farm program, so we shouldn't.”
Combs noted that corn producer organizations are considering going toward a revenue insurance program. “When you look at it on paper, with their numbers, they're just as good or better off with it. But the cotton and rice farmers are worse off under their proposal.
“So if they want to take the money that's being spent on their program and rewrite their program to suit them, I don't know that we would object to that. But they need to give us the flexibility for us to keep what we have. It will be interesting to see how those dynamics play out. They'll certainly have an advocate in Harkin.”
Harkin will become chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, when Democrats take control of the House and Senate in January.
“What we don't want is a corn program being the driver,” Combs said. “It may be a bad deal for a lot of other commodities. The farm program we have now is not a bad deal for corn producers.”
The rice industry must also guard against well-funded efforts to influence public opinion against agriculture, Combs noted. “We have not come under attack to the extent that the cotton industry has. But I am not so naïve as to think that there are not people trying to figure out how our program is a bad deal for the poor of the world somewhere.
“It's an interesting tactic that Oxfam, some of the European Organizations and the Cato Institute are taking. We seem to have the conservative think tanks and the liberal media piling on. Instead of saying farmers are getting too much money, they're saying farmers are getting too much money and they're making other people poor. And that is getting some traction in the urban areas.”
It's hard to say what effect high commodity prices may have on the farm bill debate in the coming months. But to Combs, farm policy is working just like it's supposed to. “With rice prices where they are, USDA is not going to pay out a bunch of LDPs, and there's probably no counter-cyclical payment, so the direct payment is the only cost.”
“We need to have a program that funds when times are lean and doesn't give money to people who don't need it when times are good. That's the beautiful part of the program that we have right now. In a year like this, with good rice, corn and soybean prices, it's not costing as much money.”
While Combs is happy with the current farm program, it's still not perfect. One improvement would be to fully fund the Conservation Security Program, although care should be taken not to disturb the commodity title. “We in Missouri have been able to benefit from the CSP in the Little River Ditches area. We like the idea that the program is for land in production, rather than a land retirement program.”
Other tweaking, assuming an adequate budget allocation, might include funding for specialty crops and a provision for updating bases, Combs said. “But the commodity title is still the bread and butter of the safety net farm programs, and we shouldn't take away from it.”
With the makeup of Congress increasingly urban and suburban, Combs believes the industry must make as many new friends on Capital Hill as possible.
“Farm policy tends to be a bi-partisan. We in the rice industry can work with whomever is in the majority. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., has sure been an advocate for southern agriculture, but on the Democrat side, we have Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., on the Agriculture Committee, and she's been a tireless advocate for southern interests. There is also Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who is a rice farmer himself. In Missouri, we have Reps. Jo Ann Emerson and Kenny Hulshof, (both Republicans) who have very good ag backgrounds.”
National food issue
The challenge Combs says “is to keep everyone educated that this is not just a rural versus urban issue, it's a national food policy issue. Food security should draw the attention.
“We have the safest, cheapest and most abundant food supply in the world. When you start changing farm policy, it can be affected. That's a risk. It's hard to quantify what is going to happen because you don't really know. The problem is that if you start to radically overhaul our farm program, which a lot of people would like to do, this could cause a real danger.
“When people go out of farming, they don't come back into farming when times get better. The farmers who had to quit farming in the region from Jonesboro to Stuttgart in Arkansas in 2005 are not going to come back into farming in 2007 because prices look good. It's not like you can turn on a switch in a factory and you can produce more things.”