The ink had hardly dried on the page where President Bush had signed into law the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 and already disgruntled members of Congress were looking for loopholes.
Consequently, after battling for months to stave off severe payment limitations, reduced commodity funding and other ill-conceived restrictions on a farmer's ability to turn a profit, producers and their various associations find themselves having to defend policy that still lacks the necessary regulations that give it life.
“We'll have to defend this law,” says Robbie Robbins, a Jackson County, Okla., cotton producer, on hand recently at Altus for a National Cotton Council farm law briefing.
“We have to get more involved in politics and with the public to make them understand how bad we need this bill,” Robbins says. “I cringe to think about what shape we'd be in without the National Cotton Council. NCC has done a tremendous job with public relations.”
NCC vice president for producer affairs Craig Brown says Congress has already indicated it would establish a commission to “look into payment limitations. Their charge is to report within one year. NCC will do all we can to get cotton represented on the commission.”
That body will continue a pitched battle that has been waged since early on in the farm bill debate. “Payment limitation represents one of the most ferociously discussed issues,” Brown says. No one got exactly what he wanted but farmers at least got a limit they could live with.
The current objective is nothing less than preservation of farm legislation most producers and commodity associations agree is a sight better than the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act.
“I don't know if I could survive without this farm bill,” Robbins says. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don't understand our needs. We have to do a better job educating the media and the public.”
Brown says much remains to be settled as the USDA writes rules and regulations that will direct the new farm law.
“It will be critical for farmers to provide us with information to help formulate the framework for these regulations,” Brown says. “We'll take suggestions from across the Cotton Belt and then Farm Service Agency (FSA) employees will have a significant job to put the rules in place. Regulations may not be ready for two or three months.”
Even though much remains in question, Brown says the new law provides farmers with a safety net through market loans and target prices.
“This is better legislation than the series of disaster bills Congress passed the last few years,” Brown says. “Farmers don't have to wait each year for Congress to act. Producers know what they'll get. And even though we'll have to defend this legislation throughout its life, we have a lot of support in both the Senate and the House.”
“This law offers a great benefit to growers,” says Jackson County farmer Mark Nichols. “It provides a big boost to the future of agriculture in this country.”
Nichols says the decision this spring on crop options was a moot point. “Most of our land is irrigated, so we know we'll plant cotton,” he says. “But we can now assume at least a base income from our efforts. With a target of 72 cents per pound, we're assured of a better loan price.
“I, like most farmers, prefer to get paid from the market, not the government, but we need some assurance.”
Brown says the conservation titles in the new law could offer farmers an opportunity to improve erosion control and water quality and also to collect on practices they already perform.
“Details remain sketchy, but there is a lot of money in the conservation program,” Brown says.
Nichols and Robbins say the new farm legislation will benefit more than just producers.
“The safety net will be good for rural communities,” Nichols says. “Car dealers, for instance, have not been able to do much the last few years. Now, things will begin to move again.
“But if the Grassley Amendment had been passed, farm labor jobs would have vanished, and that would have affected rural economies. Even stores as large as Wal-Mart would have suffered.”
Robbins plans no significant changes to his operation because of the new farm laws, but he may cull some less productive acreage instead of risking the additional production putting him over the payment limit.
“I have 72 landlords, most of them older folks, and it's hard to turn back land, and they may have trouble getting anyone to work marginal acreage.”
Robbins agrees with Nichols that most farmers prefer to earn their money from the marketplace instead of from government payments. But they also concur that forces outside an individual farmer's control play critical roles in commodity prices. As long at the United States maintains a strong dollar, liberal import policies and permits unfair trade practices to go unchallenged, farmers will continue to need a safety net.