The message couldn’t have been clearer.

The Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 is working, so don’t change it.

Whether that missive gets back to Washington and whether Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns will support that position when debate on the next farm bill begins in earnest remain less than lucid, however.

If the Secretary had any questions about how Texas farmers feel about current farm programs, they were answered within the first few minutes of a USDA Farm Bill Forum, aka a “listening session” held Wednesday in Lubbock.

Farmers and ranchers from across the state as well as a few from neighboring Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas, implored Johanns to support continuation of the current program, without additional payment limitations.

“The 2002 farm bill is working,” said Wally Darnell, president and CEO, Plains Cotton Cooperative. “It gives us a safety net that allows us to survive in the world market. Other countries give lip service to the notion of eliminating subsidies, but they all come in the back door.”

Darnell said cotton, and the program that supports producers, means economic stability for West Texas. “We run 20 percent of the U.S. cotton crop through our facilities,” he said. “We need to continue the 2002 farm bill.”

Kenny Lundsford, Oklahoma Panhandle cotton farmer, said the current farm program provides growers an opportunity to make a profit. “Direct and counter cyclical payments provide a safety net,” he said.

“I believe the present farm bill works for farmers and consumers,” said Leland White, a Lynn County, Texas, cotton farmer. “Production costs have increased significantly since the 2002 law was passed. Energy is up 100 percent or more in some cases.” Those increases, he said, underline the need for continued support for America’s farmers.

Shawn Holliday, a Dawson County producer, said farming “is not always an easy life but farmers allow the United States to maintain its independence in food and fiber production. A strong agriculture needs a strong support program,” he said.

“Our government has a duty to spend our (tax) money well,” said an unidentified speaker. And he allowed that the current farm bill is a good investment. “We need direct payments to compete on an uneven playing field. Other countries do not have an EPA, OSHA or minimum wage. Our young people are leaving rural America.”

He was one of a number of speakers who also urged the Secretary to maintain current funding and current offices for the Farm Service Agency.

Peanut farmers Jimbo Grisson and Ted Higginbotham also supported continuation of the current program.

“We were disappointed in the president’s recommended cuts to the agriculture program,” Grissom said.

“It takes a lot of acres of land, a lot of equipment and a lot of labor to make a living on a farm.”

Limiting payments discourages growers from reaching peak efficiency, he said.

“The 02 program allows us to stay on the farm. We don’t want to see major changes in the farm bill.”

Grissom said his son recently asked if he would be able to farm under a new farm bill, considering the increased cost of production.

Higginbotham said the current farm program has been good for peanuts and should be continued.

“This is the first time the entire peanut industry has united to support a program,” he said.

Dale Artho, a grain farmer from Wilderado, said changing the 2002 farm bill would be “detrimental to WTO negotiations.” He said changes also bring other negative ramifications. “An inadequate farm support program equals reduced land values, tax base losses and trouble for rural economies. We also need our FSA offices fully funded.”

Johanns was less than optimistic about maintaining the current farm bill during a press conference following the forum.

He said in other listening sessions, especially in the Midwest, farmers are asking for payment limits. He emphasized that some two-thirds of farm crops receive no support and said with exports responsible for a large portion of U.S. farm production, trade issues would be a key in farm policy.

Nor was he optimistic about maintaining the Step 2 provision in cotton. “I recommended eliminating it,” he said.

U.S. Congressman Mike Conaway said eliminating the program during a marketing cycle would be unfair to growers. He said the industry would have a better idea of Congress’ thinking on Step 2 when a budget reconciliation proposal is complete.

Conaway also said the atmosphere for the next farm bill debate will be significantly different from the one leading up to passage of the 2002 law.

“We had Combest (Larry) and Stenholm (Charlie) working in a bi-partisan effort and we had a budget surplus. In 2006 and 2007, we’re looking at a deficit and we can’t predict the impact (it will have on the debate). The folks I represent (The Texas 11th District) are uniform in support of the 02 farm bill.”

He said the WTO ruling against the cotton program also militates against continuation of the current law.

He also pointed out that the program has been less expensive than anticipated, “about $10 billion less than the Congressional Budget Office expected.”

Congressman Randy Neugebauer said the deficit may not be as big an issue come farm bill debate time as folks fear. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “The deficit was not as large as anticipated.”

He also pointed out that the 2002 law had performed better than expected. “Some years, payments were near zero,” he said. “I believe Congress should look at that and see how well the program works. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “The message Secretary Johanns heard today was consistent: don’t mess with the farm bill.”

Johanns said he hopes the U.S. House and Senate reach a consensus about FSA funding. He said some 200 offices across the country “are down to one person. Technology predates the Internet.”

He said the goal is to “upgrade FSA. We propose to look at how we can best do that.”

He said FSA office technology should at least mirror that of farmers and ranchers. “Farmers are sophisticated beyond FSA, and we need to upgrade the FSA office technology to match clients.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com