Members of the House Agricultural Committee pledged their support to maintain a safety net for America's farmers during a field hearing recently in San Angelo, Texas.

“Today, producers face higher input costs due to the rise in energy costs, more environmental regulation and trade issues,” said Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. “These challenges are further compounded by a misperception of farm programs in many areas of the country.”

Goodlatte, in welcoming remarks before Texas farmers and ranchers indicated their desires for farm legislation, said members of the agriculture committee understand the plight farmers face and the “vital role farm policy plays in sustaining American agriculture for our national economy as well as our national security.”

That understanding does not extend to all members of Congress, however. “We do our best to educate our colleagues,” Goodlatte said, “but we need your help. Voice your concerns to members of Congress outside the agriculture committee, (also to) media and local communities and spread the message about the importance of U.S. agriculture beyond rural America.”

Goodlatte said he understands the hardships payment limits could impose on commercial farm operations.

Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a, ranking member, said much of the testimony he heard from Texas producers rings true with producers in Minnesota and in other regions where the committee has held hearings.

“Today in Texas, we heard from a diverse group of producers who echoed many of the themes we have heard around the country,” Peterson said. He said Texas producers warned that the United States should not “unilaterally disarm by cutting domestic agriculture programs as trade talks continue. They encourage us to invest in disaster relief, conservation and bio-energy production. Their common sense ideas reinforce the importance of these hearings,” he said.

Peterson also expressed a bit of impatience with calls for further cuts in agricultural spending.

“These budget talks concern me,” he said. “Agriculture did not cause this budget problem and I do not believe we (agriculture) should pay the price.”

Committee members also expressed hope that the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 could be extended, at least until ongoing World Trade Organization negotiations are completed. Writing a farm bill while those talks are up in the air, committee members said, would be difficult and could mean having to revisit the legislation if agreements precluded some program provisions.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, said the possibility of extending the 2002 law looks more likely than it did a few months ago. He said the current program is working and said maintaining the safety net will be key.

“Among West Texas farmers there is strong support for the current farm bill and for continuing many of the commodity programs that have proven successful in recent years,” he said. “As time approaches to start writing the 2007 legislation, Congress would be wise to follow the age-old advice that ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it.’”

Neugebauer also pledged support for improved risk management tools. “Improved crop insurance options would do a better job of protecting farmers against drought and other disasters than the current system of ad-hoc disaster packages passed by Congress,” he said.

“Today, we heard a clear message from Texas farmers and ranchers: The 2002 farm bill works,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. “Regardless of the crop or region, Texas producers like what they have in current federal farm policy.”

Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said comments he heard in San Angelo echoed “what I'd hear in Kansas.” He said after one producer testified that the USDA definition of a farm (any operation with $1,000 annual gross sales) was a misrepresentation “a light went on. That's where much of the criticism of farm programs comes from. Our task is to have USDA define a farm more realistically.”

Moran also said crop insurance programs need improvement. “After a disaster the price goes up and coverage goes down,” he said. “We need a new product that will make insurance more viable.”

Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pennsylvania, said on-farm energy production could provide a new revenue source for farmers.

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R- Colorado, said agricultural issues should not be addressed only when a farm bill is up for debate. “This issue needs to be kept before Congress and the American people all the time,” she said. She expressed concern about the lack of bright, young people willing to come back to family farms.

Rep. Charlie Melancon, D- Louisiana, a self-proclaimed Blue Dog Democrat, said farmers need a disaster bill this year. “Anyone who doesn't support a disaster bill for farmers needs to consider that they might be next,” he said. He encouraged producers to call their legislators and “make them understand the need for disaster assistance for now and for the long-term.”

Melancon was one of several committee members who support some sort of permanent disaster title in farm legislation.

He also supports renewable fuel production. “We are not energy independent,” he said. “And unless we do something soon, we may not be food independent either. Government can do a better job than it has done. We need to spend money for taxpayers and not just give it away to foreign countries.”

“I am impressed that Texas producers are able to prioritize and make hard choices about the things they need in a farm bill,” said Mike Conaway, R-Texas. The hearing was held in Conaway's congressional district.

“We have an opportunity to do great things in the agriculture committee,” he said. “We must be non-partisan and in this committee, partisanship rarely rears its ugly head.”

Rep. John Salazar, D-Colorado, a fifth generation farmer, said he appreciated the challenge farmers face as they put in the 2006 crop. “We need government assistance,” he said. “Fuel costs, for instance, have increased 76 percent in the last two years.”

He said converting some acreage to energy production could alleviate some over supply problems.

Growers cautioned that switching too many acres out of commodity titles could jeopardize the safety net.

Neugebauer said both agriculture and energy were too important to pit against each other and suggested a separate program for energy.

“This is the most expensive planting season in the history of U.S. agriculture,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. “Farmers can rarely pencil in break-even figures and if they consider previous losses they can't make it.”

Pomeroy praised the producer panel and said he'd “swap out a house full of lobbyists in Washington for these producers (to get) common sense.”


e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com