Apparently, appointed employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have notes taped to the back of his or her door, the last thing they see before leaving to give speeches. It could read something like this: Don't discuss payment limitations, STUPID.

The most recent non-answer to a direct question about the administrations' position on this volatile issue came from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture James Moseley, speaking to the Plains Cotton Growers annual meeting recently in Lubbock.

“It's difficult and regional,” Mosley said during a press conference following his formal presentation. “Congress is working and I trust they will figure out the right level for a sustainable, viable agriculture.”

Comments from Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman in February followed a similar line. She said something to the effect that payment limitations would be a sticky issue as the farm bill debate progressed but shed no light on how the Bush administration stands on the issue.

Moseley assured attendees that “the administration sees food and fiber production as essential for national security.”

He also indicated support for a speedy conclusion to the farm bill. “I don't know when we'll get a final bill,” he said, “but Representative Larry Combest, R-Texas, has worked (with Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas) tirelessly on the farm bill and they have a lot of support in USDA. Combest is unwavering in his commitment to get a bill completed (in time for the 2002 crop) and I wouldn't bet against him.”

He said USDA would implement new legislation when it's passed. “When we get the law, we'll implement it. I don't know how, but we'll do it. We have to. We are working daily with Congress to get regulations ready,” he said.

Moseley said key elements of a new farm law would include:

“A strong safety net. That's crucial.

“We'll have a strong conservation provision, more money to apply to working lands.” Protecting agriculture's infrastructure also makes the top of the list.

Moseley said research, APHIS, and other agencies should be updated. “If we don't have a strong infrastructure, we can expect weak agricultural programs,” he said.

He pointed to the current situation with cotton to emphasize the need for a safety net. “The current situation is not good. We have a stocks-to-consumption ratio of 50 percent. Record production and high beginning stocks add up to the highest stocks and the lowest prices in 30 years. A slowly eroding domestic apparel industry makes things even worse.”

Moseley said apparel industry production had declined by 35 percent over the past four years.

“But I believe the situation is turning the corner. We will not come out of this overnight, but the market is working. Planting intentions for cotton indicate a 6 percent reduction for 2002. That will help get cotton production where it ought to be and increase efficiency for farmers.”

He said Don Evans, with the Department of Commerce, has begun a study of U.S. textiles in the world market. “Results will let us see what we need to do. Meanwhile, the situation is painful. That's why we need a strong safety net until we get the marketing picture figured out.”

He emphasized the importance of cotton and agriculture to the nation's economy. “Agriculture puts $1.3 trillion into the economy and employs 24 million workers. Cotton contributes a significant amount to those figures, so we can't afford to lose cotton's contribution to the economy.

“That's why it's crucial to get a good farm bill.”

But he cautioned cotton farmers not to count on just new legislation to pull them out of the economic malaise.

“We have to look longer term at our infrastructure, research and market development,” he said. “We have to gain access to foreign markets and technology will provide the key to meeting worldwide competition.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com