Some farmers may have relaxed a little when they saw the payment limit section of the preliminary discussion draft the House General Farm Commodities Subcommittee released June 14.

After months of pounding on farmers and farm programs by OxFam, environmental and “taxpayer” groups and the national news media, the draft contained a smattering of payment limit verbiage about direct attribution of benefits.

While the provision limiting payments to a single person or social security number could be problematic for some cotton and rice producers, the draft’s other language was not nearly as draconian as OxFam and the Environmental Working Group have been demanding.

Before producers get too relaxed, you should realize the draft the subcommittee was scheduled to take up on June 19 is probably only the opening salvo in a war that could get brutal before its over.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said the commodity title draft would not be the last word on the farm bill. The Minnesota Democrat indicated he would have additional changes to the commodity title when the full committee meets June 26.

“I think it’s safe to say we will have payment limit reforms in our bill,” he said. “This isn’t something I’ve wanted to do, but I think the handwriting is on the wall. It isn’t sustainable to go to the floor without some changes in payment limits.”

Just how difficult the debate could become was indicated by the response from the “cottage industry” that has sprung up around the farm bill debate. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an umbrella group for numerous conservation groups, was one of the first.

“The proposal takes one modest step forward — attributing payments to real, warm-bodied individuals — but fails to make meaningful change by cracking down on the current mechanisms that allow for creation of ‘paper’ farms to collect additional payments.

“The proposal also takes a dramatic leap backward by removing any limits on loan deficiency payments and marketing loan gains,” it said. “Family farmers demanding a level playing field through enactment of real payment limits will have to hope committee and floor amendments to this initial offering are forthcoming.”

A Cato Institute analyst accused the ag committee of “shying away from significant and wholesale reforms needed to free farmers from this outdated system of intervention.”

Peterson said he was still exploring the idea of extending payment limits to conservation programs, instead of having a $50,000 cap on CRP payments and no limit on other programs.

“If payment limits are a good idea, I think it should probably be across the board,” he said, adding that USDA had considered the same recommendation in its proposal.

Peterson said it’s increasingly difficult to defend large payments to farmers. “It’s hard to explain to people. No question about that. We’re trying to keep as much peace in the family as possible, but this issue has interest outside the ag committee, just like it does inside. People have enthusiasm for this.”

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