“To give some perspective, as of today the 12 members of the Joint Committee haven’t even agreed on where to start at zero to determine the baseline for the cuts. There is a very distinct possibility that Nov. 23 will come and nothing will have been been achieved by the committee.

“If they fail to come up with the $1.2 trillion in cuts, we’d then go to budget sequestration, basically putting the federal budget in the hands of the Congressional Budget Office.

“What that would mean for agriculture is that the CBO would likely cut less than $23 billion — an estimate is around $15 billion to $16 billion — but from proposals we’ve seen, they would eliminate direct payments, without touching nutrition and conservation.

“Democrats are in favor of holding on to nutrition – 44 million Americans are projected to be on food stamps next year, and nutrition programs are 75 percent of the ag budget. Some of these sacred cows will be very hard to touch in the budget-cutting process.

“We don’t know if the Joint Committee will accept our farm policy recommendations. The committee has unprecedented power; if they do come up with ag policy recommendations on their own, the scary thing is that when their proposal goes to the House and Senate for a vote, there will not be an amendment process – just a straight up or down vote.

“This process is not ideal by any means, but we’re just playing the hand we’ve been dealt at this point.”

 Ironically, Clarke says, commodity programs have actually saved money under the 2008 farm bill, “so when the March baseline comes out, we’ll already be behind the 8-ball because the baseline for commodities will be smaller.”

Investment in commodity programs “is an investment in domestic food supply and global food security,” he says. “There is a limited acreage worldwide that can produce crops, and with the projected rate of global population growth the only way we’ll be able to meet these food needs is to encourage research, biotechnology, and investments in agriculture.”

In a question-and-answer session, Clarke said it remains to be seen how cuts for agriculture will be spread over the titles.

“The general consensus is that commodity titles, conservation, and nutrition would bear the brunt of the cuts in our $23 billion proposal. It’s still up for discussion what the ratios would be, but I think the writing is on the wall that commodities will get the majority of the cuts.”

Producers will still get direct payments in 2012, he noted.

“Our proposal would not take effect until the 2013 crop year, which would give producers time to restructure and adjust to any changes.”

He says, “We’re toeing the line as long as we can to keep direct payments — but a lot of people see the writing on the wall, and we’re telling commodity groups that direct payments are likely to be eliminated.

“Obviously, we’d like to use those funds and redirect them to investment in other commodity programs. But unfortunately, a lot of people in leadership positions have it as a top priority to eliminate direct payments.”

Renewable energy programs in the 2008 farm bill don’t have any baseline beyond 2012, Clarke says.

“There is no mandatory spending — it’s all discretionary. The rumor mill is that those programs will be authorized as discretionary programs, with appropriators like Sen. Cochran having authority to assign funding.”

Ethanol tax breaks are set to expire at the end of this year, as well as ethanol import tariffs, he notes.

Agriculture research programs are likely to be “relatively unscathed,” Clarke says. “A lot of research dollars are discretionary, so appropriations would provide those. The Senate did pass a  mini-appropriations bill Nov. 1 that included ag research, and we should be in conference with the House in coming weeks to fund ag research.”

Agriculture is “the cornerstone of Mississippi’s economy,” he says. In 2011, the value of Mississippi agricultural production was $6.88 billion, and continuation of ag research programs “is vital to meeting this country’s future food needs.”