Don't expect an extension past April 1 to adjust farm program yield and acreage bases. “There will be no extension,” said Jim Little, administrator for the FSA in Washington.

Little, the keynote speaker at the recent s annual Southwest Crops Production Conference and Expo in Lubbock, said program signup, although not as far along as the agency would like, is within striking distance of enrolling all the farmers who intend to take advantage of yield and acreage adjustments.

“This is a historical opportunity,” Little said, “and marks the first time since 1985 that farmers have been allowed to update yields to reflect actual production.

“A lot has changed since 1985. Farmers have better technology, better varieties and improved tillage methods. Also, more farmers have irrigation.”

Little said farmers who fail to meet the April 1 deadline will default to historical yields, many of which will be significantly lower than production for the past four years, the period they will use to establish yield and acreage bases for the life of the current farm legislation.

“It make sense for farmers to come into county offices and evaluate the differences,” he said. “They can determine if proven yields will benefit their operations.”

Little said signup in the Texas High Plains outpaces most of the country.

“More than 70 percent of the producers have come into the office to prove yields,” he said. Little said farmers in areas with high numbers of irrigated acres appear to be taking advantage of proving yields.

Statewide, 54 percent of Texas farmers have signed up. Nationally, 43 percent have completed the process. Little said cotton states have 47 percent of their farmers enrolled; grain states have 52 percent, and the Southeast has 46 percent. The Northeast, he said, has only about 2 percent signed up.

He said some farmers are scared off by the complexity of the signup procedure. “It is extremely complicated,” he said. “We did not intentionally make it difficult; the farm bill is complex.”

A big snag is the requirement that landowners must approve the changes before signup. “Some farmers have dozens of landlords and tracking them down is difficult,” Little said.

“Obtaining powers of attorney for all those landlords is a huge task for many farmers,” said John Fuston, Texas director for FSA.

Little said current percentages may be misleading. “We have a lot of producers who have made decisions and just have final forms to sign. So, current numbers don't tell the whole story.”

He said about one-third of the nation's farmers will accept the default and use historical yield and acreage bases. Considering current signup figures, he said, some 70 percent to 80 percent of farmers who intend to sign up may already be enrolled.

“Taking care of the last 20 percent to 30 percent by the deadline is more than possible.”

“We have appointment opportunities open in Texas counties,” said Jerry Harris, state FSA Committee chairman.

“This is a good opportunity. I would hate to see it missed,” Little added. “If farmers miss the deadline, they have no options until the next farm bill. If they sign up and think they made a mistake, they have an appeal opportunity.”

He recommended that farmers have good records available before they visit the county FSA office.

“If they have good numbers for three of the last four years, we can use county averages to provide yield for the fourth year. That may not always be in the farmer's best interest, however.” Accurate records, he said, provide the best information.

Information required includes:

All production records for 1998-2002.

For cash-leased land, FSA requires a copy of the lease agreement if available and proof of lease payment.

If no written lease agreement is provided, the landowner must sign for zero shares.

Producers who have dropped, added, purchased, sold or otherwise changed their farming operations should be prepared to report these changes to the FSA office.

Producers must certify any 2002 crop plantings or land use changes not previously reported.

He said a farm base and yield analyzer program, available on the FSA Website, can facilitate the process.

“We've had more than 120,000 complete the software on the site we developed with Texas A&M,” he said. “Other land grand universities also have program analyzers available to help producers make base acreage and yield decisions.”

In the five months since the farm program was initiated, Little said, FSA has paid out more than $5.9 billion, including: $1.2 billion for peanut buyout, $1.6 billion for the Conservation Reserve Program, $164 million for apple market losses, $1.5 billion in direct payments, $1 billion for Milk Income Loss Compensation, $722 million for counter-cyclical payments, and $839 million for Farm Loan Programs.

More than $582 million has been paid out in Texas.

Little said payments have gone to farmers who have signed up, about 53 percent of the Texas farmers. “Texas is well ahead of the curve,” he said.

Disaster payments will be sent to eligible producers “as soon as possible,” Little said. Setting a timetable is not possible yet, however. Legislation has passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bush.

“But we still have to publish regulations, set policies and develop software,” Little said. “We're looking for innovative ways to get funds to producers as fast as we can.”

He said sign-up for farm programs, which is ongoing, complicates the process. “We're juggling priorities.”

“We also have a Conservation Reserve Program signup. Acreage allowed in CRP has increased from 34.6 million to 39.2 million. “We have 33.5 million acres enrolled so far. And rules are still under discussion.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com