Seeing through the murky water of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 is like snorkeling in the Red River. Some important stuff is suspended in there somewhere but it’s awfully hard to get a hand on it.

And with less than a month until scheduled sign-up, regulations that will determine how the legislation is administered remain unwritten while rumors and wrong information run rampant through rural communities.

The August 31 deadline to establish base and yield, for instance, may not be as etched in stone as folks believed.

“We’ve told our people that August 31 is not a ‘drop dead date,’” says Diane Sparks, Office of Program Administration for the Farm Service Agency in Washington. “We’ve told state offices if farmers or landowners come in after that date to take care of them.”

Sparks placed herself in the line of fire recently at a Farm Foundation seminar set up to provide agricultural educators with the most up-to-date information available on farm legislation. She fielded questions for nearly an hour from the audience and admitted that many details remain unclear as FSA workers write regulations.

“We’re working on a deadlines calendar,” she said, “but we don’t have it yet. We realize that farmers and landowners need to know when they have act to take advantage of these programs. A timeline will be available soon and will be posted on the FSA website.

“But we can’t do anything until we publish regulations,” Sparks said. “We can’t enter into contracts with farmers without regulations. But I can assure you it will not be as late as January, 2003, before we get this done.”

She said the delay follows a mid-year enactment of the farm legislation. FSA has a mountain of work to do in a short time, she said.

“If industry faced this task they would devote two years to get it done. We had three months.”

Fred Wood, with the Farm Foundation, “a nonprofit organization founded in 1933 to improve the well-being of U.S. agriculture and rural people,” said the organization has “scheduled meetings to instruct educators,” on the farm bill.

“FSA has an impossible job,” he said. “It’s especially hard this year because the new law includes so many sweeping changes.”

The daylong seminars included the latest information available on the ever-evolving Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. Woods recommended that farmers and those helping farmers and landowners should check out several Web sites that provide information on dates, new regulations and interpretations, including those for USDA, the Farm Foundation and Texas A&M University. The sites are listed at the conclusion of this story

Joe Outlaw, Texas Extension economist explained how the A&M program works. “It’s a base yield analyzer,” Outlaw said, “designed to help producers make decisions. It’s easy to understand and easy to use. The program allows growers to plug in multiple price and multiple crop options. It gives farmers choices.”

Outlaw said users should be aware that irrigated and non-irrigated program benefits will be different and should select both options if they have some land that’s irrigated and some in dryland production. “Also, select alternate crops you may plant.”

He said the program offers two forms, one short and one long. “Choose the long one. It provides more details to help make decisions.”

The FSA also has a site that walks farmers through the decision-making process. “But we don’t include prices,” Sparks said. “We can’t put ourselves in a position where we suggest a price.”

Outlaw said the price function allows producers to analyze various acreage, crop and profit options. “We’ve developed a program to show farmers how to make the best decisions possible to maximize government benefits.”

Outlaw and other specialists recommended that farmers should not use target prices to determine crops or acreage. “Unless a farmer over-produces, he will not hit the target price,” Outlaw said. The effective (market) price and fixed payment should provide the baseline.

Sparks tried to clear up a few murky issues during her question and answer session.

She said conservation reserve program land, for instance, remains an enigma. “If the CRP acreage was protecting base, we’ll allow it as base when it comes out,” she said. “But this is a vague provision. We have no clue what we’re supposed to do with the CRP provision for base. We need suggestions from farmers and farm organizations. Fortunately, we have a little time to deal with it. Nothing is coming out of CRP immediately.”

She said the issue probably will “go back to the Hill for clarification.”

Doublecrop acreage also offers some sticky issues. “Base can exceed acreage if the county has a history of doublecropping,” Sharp said. That history is established if farmers in the county “can plant a crop, harvest it, plant a second crop and take it to harvest.”

A producer in a county that meets that criterion can get a doublecrop base, “ but does not have to take the second crop to harvest,” Sparks said. “The key question is: Can you normally get two crops from the same ground?”

She said skip-row cotton acreage would be considered on the actual planted base, perhaps 66 acres of a 100–acre field. Someone asked what would the base be on skip-row cotton that’s abandoned and replanted in grain sorghum. “The grower chooses the crop for benefits,” she said. “It can’t be both.”

Farmers can diversify under the new program without losing base. “They can plant something like fruits and vegetable on “free acres (acreage not included in the base) or they can stay out of the program for a year and plant non-program crops.”

She said the new program provides more flexibility than other farm acts have allowed. “A farmer can choose not to sign up for benefits one year and will not lose his base. I think this will be better for farmers. In the past, some did not sign up on time and lost base.”

She said that base acreage would remain in place for the life of the farm bill. Farmers or landowners can’t add more after this initial sign-up. “Also, any reduction in base will be permanent.”

She said FSA “is still working on how to handle grazed wheat. We realize that’s a big issue in the Southwest,” she said. “This will not be an agency decision.”

She said FSA also will scrutinize yield data that seems out of kilter. “If a farm reports a yield 130 percent above the county average, we will look at it immediately. Updated yields must be verified.”

Sparks said peanut regulations are still a work in progress, but she offered some insight into how program changes may affect growers. “As far as payment is concerned, the historical peanut producer will be paid. The acreage reports will be a key in determining historical producers.”

The new program also will pay storage costs for peanuts that go into the loan. “Basically, this reduces the amount producers owe the government,” she said. “The loan redeemer pays storage. The amount in the loan and time it’s in is credited to the producer.”

To qualify for the loan deficiency payment, peanut farmers must get their crops into the loan before January 31 of the year following production. “They will not qualify for storage costs if they’re not in by January 31.”

Sparks said FSA and the Cooperative Extension Service have worked together with farm bill education. “We’re dealing with a lot of complicated information,” she said, “and education is critical. We’ve partnered with Extension to help with education so FSA can administer the program.”

For more information about the farm bill and farmers’ options, click on the following:

http://www.fsa.usda.gov.pas/farmbill/fbfaqhome.asp. This site is for frequently asked questions.

http://www.fsa.usda.gov.pas/news/releases/index.html. This site provides the latest news regarding the farm bill and regulations.

http://www.farmfoundation.org. This is the Farm Foundation Website and includes updates on the farm bill.

http://www.agecoext.tamu.edu/2002/fb. This is a Texas A&M Extension agricultural economics department site where farmers can locate a spreadsheet to help determine program benefits for specific crops and acreages.

e-mail: Rsmith@primediabusiness.com