Agricultural commodity groups are beginning to circle their wagons in anticipation of a new round of farm bill discussions. And as debate begins on legislation many believe will be signed sometime in 2008, observers acknowledge that keeping individual wagons from straying off on their own will be more important than ever.

Observers point out that conditions that allowed the 2002 farm bill to provide a good safety net for agriculture no longer exist. Gone is the budget surplus.

“Now we have deficits as far as the eye can see,” says Ralph Grossi, American Farmland Trust.

Grossi, along with Sherman Reese, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers; Keira Franz, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association; and James Vorderstrasse, president of the National Grains Sorghum Producers, offered ideas about what they hope to see in the next farm bill during the recent North American Grain Congress in San Antonio, Texas.

Each offered differing and sometimes conflicting ideas but all agree that at the end of the day, agriculture must go to Congress unified.

“Farm bill reform is inevitable,” Grossi said. “We have to think about a different farm bill structure.”

He says more non-farm entities now clamor for attention in farm bill discussions and that traditional support is diminishing, “especially as urban congressmen get involved in agriculture policy.

“I have never seen so many non-ag interests working on farm issues,” he said. “And some are spending a lot of money to overhaul the current policy.”

Grossi said farmers can’t sit on the sidelines and watch others dominate the talks. “It’s decision time for agriculture,” he said. “We need to maintain the baseline and find ways to maintain and broaden public support (for agriculture).”

Grossi said globalization, budget constraints, the perception and transparency of agricultural legislation and the unmet needs of agriculture will be key issues in the coming debate.

Reese said NAWG hopes to “tweak” the current farm bill, not overhaul it. He said loan deficiency payments do little for wheat growers but the direct payments are crucial and should be raised from 52 cents to $1 per bushel. “Other commodities use the LDPs but wheat is not able to,” he said. He also said payment cap should be raised from $40,000 to $80,000.

He said the World Trade Organization, the U.S. budget and a producer safety net would be critical issues in the farm bill discussion.

Franz said U.S. farm policy should focus on building “long-term competitiveness and sustainability of the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry. Our government should focus on creating a fair, level playing field with international competitors,” she said.

“Our federal policy should be to remove international trade barriers.”

She hopes to see Congress “expand the scope of the farm bill to include fruit and vegetables. That will make the legislation relevant to every congressional district in the nation,” she said.

Vorderstrasse said trade negotiators have offered up a considerable chunk of U.S. farm programs for market access. “The situation is volatile,” he said. “But we have to work to keep cuts from our safety net to a minimum. These budget reconciliation efforts usually last for three or four years. The commodity title is essential to grain sorghum producers.”

He said the farm bill should make certain payments for grain sorghum are equal with corn. “We also need to factor in water policies, and realize that grain sorghum is a water-sipping grain.”

He said potential for ethanol from grain sorghum also holds promise for rural America. “We have seen a price increase of $.10 to $.15 a bushel with an ethanol plant in the area,” he said.

He also understands the dilemma. “We have less money for the next farm bill and we want to preserve our current funding level. We have to encourage legislators to develop a farm bill that works for farmers in spite of budget constraints.”

e-mail: rsmith@prismb2b.com