Another group has thrown a set of proposals into the 2007 farm bill debating ring. On the 73rd anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's signing of the first farm bill, the American Farmland Trust announced a desire to replace “outdated policies” with programs that will reach a greater number of farmers.
At a May 8 news conference to introduce the framework, AFT president Ralph Grossi — flanked by Dan Glickman and Clayton Yeutter, two former agriculture secretaries supporting the plan — said, “Farmers, ranchers, conservationists and the public are ready to join hands to support a new farm bill that is truly pro-farmer and pro-stewardship and that creates new opportunities for American agriculture to serve local markets and compete around the world.”
Titled “Agenda 2007: A New Framework and Direction for U.S. Farm Policy,” AFT's policy guidelines focus on paying farmers for environmental protection at the expense of direct commodity payments. Among the report recommendations:
“Green payments” to create greater incentives for farmers to deliver environmental benefits. This would shift some $5 billion a year of crop subsidies to conservation.
A financial safety net and tools to manage the risk of natural disasters and dramatic swings in prices and yield.
Revenue-based risk management programs to replace counter-cyclical programs.
A $1 billion grants program to foster innovative enterprises, markets and regional food systems.
“The clock is ticking for U.S. agriculture,” said Yeutter. “Our farmers and ranchers can and should control their own destiny by taking the lead on farm policy reform. The alternative is to risk World Trade Organization (WTO) challenges that may impose reforms on us that we would prefer to avoid — like the reforms that have already occurred in cotton. Either way the stage is set for major policy changes. If we handle them skillfully and creatively we can eliminate our WTO vulnerability while still serving U.S. farmers well.”
AFT's proposal is the “right formula for converting a potential policy train wreck into an unprecedented opportunity for a new generation of farmers and ranchers,” added Glickman. “These recommendations will recognize and reward farmers for stewardship of our nation's resources and improve the nutrition of our citizens through expanding access to specialty crops and fresh, locally grown food. This vision will rebuild public confidence in federal agriculture spending.”
However, the speakers all said implementing the plan would take a toll. “There would be farmers who got less direct support from government,” said Grossi. “But (in AFT meetings) farmers told us that they'd rather have their income from the marketplace. So some of that money will be used to reinvest in new market opportunities, some will go to green payments. You have to think about these programs in a comprehensive fashion…
“There would be reallocations of funding. There…are winners and losers anytime you make a major change in public policy. We need to talk about that upfront. What is the proper transition?…For those who won't come out with as much money as they've gotten in the past, (how do we make the) transition smooth?”
The men said the push to simply renew the current farm bill is a bad idea.
“We don't believe that's feasible,” said Grossi. We don't believe that 10 years from now farm programs will look like they do today. If you accept that — that change is on the horizon, is inevitable — then the earlier you start…the easier it is to make changes, the less traumatic the change and transition will be. And the more likely agriculture will play a role in designing that change. So the strategy is to put good ideas on the table and not accept the status quo.”
Having served in Congress for 18 years as a representative from Kansas, Glickman is well aware of how politics work. “I know this won't be the easiest thing…because most members of Congress will naturally want to protect their local, home-grown constituencies. That's as much a part of the American political process as anything else.
“But the politics of doing nothing or just (going with) an extension bring fewer and fewer players into the political mix. One of these days someone will take this from the forces of agriculture and will run a program through that isn't in agriculture's best interest.”
Referencing his work as a former U.S. trade representative, Yeutter believes extending the current farm bill would be a major mistake. “We want to get all the market access we can from the Doha rounds to couple with the environmental energy benefits emphasized (in the AFT report). The only way to do that is at the negotiating table. We'd do (current negotiators) no favors by, in essence, pulling the rug out from under them through a short-term extension…That would be a major, tactical error.”
Queried on support for the current farm bill based on region, Grossi admitted that is a factor. However, “there's a large (agricultural) segment — about two-thirds — that doesn't get direct support from the current farm programs. (That segment) has very pressing needs they want addressed. They have legitimate demands as they come to the table. This is in the livestock, specialty crop and niche farming areas.
“I think it's going to be a lot harder to write a farm bill with, at best, a stable baseline but, possibly, a shrinking baseline with many more needs at the table. It might be easier if you start with a different framework than trying to piecemeal the old framework. That's our approach…”
Proponents say the AFT proposal won't require any taxpayer funds over what's already being spent on agriculture. “We actually believe that it's well under the current baseline,” said Grossi. “That really depends on which revenue-insurance options we decide to implement…We also believe it fits within the October proposal the (Bush) administration made in the Doha round in terms of ‘amber box.’”
Currently, the United States has a trade proposal that would reduce amber box subsidies substantially. If that proposal holds “then we'll need to make appropriate changes in (2007) farm legislation,” said Yeutter. “This plan provides the opportunity to do that with a lot less trauma than might otherwise be the case. What (AFT) has put together in new carrots in the environmental area…is really imaginative in responding to what…might emerge from the Uruguay round. That's something that hasn't been sufficiently (covered) thus far.”
If the Doha round fails, “every one of our existing commodity programs is likely to be challenged in the WTO,” said Yeutter. “We may win some and lose some. But to operate in that kind of environment is very risky, indeed. If I was an American farmer, I wouldn't want to run that risk…Irrespective of what happens in the Doha round, we need this debate.”
Despite the sluggish movement of the WTO negotiations, Yeutter said it's not time to throw in the towel. “It's much too early for that. Having been involved in about as many negotiations as anyone in the country, I can tell you there's a lot of ebb and flow. We shouldn't write off the Doha rounds by any means…”
If the worst comes to pass and WTO countries begin retaliating against the United States, “it would begin to bring non-agricultural industries into the making of farm policy,” said Glickman. “That hasn't happened yet, but it could…That's something we'd probably like to avoid.”
Will the AFT framework add to the sense that the 2007 farm bill debate will be commodities versus conservation?
“It's not about conservation versus commodity,” insisted Grossi. “It's about old programs versus programs for the 21st Century. It's about old programs versus investing in the strengthening of agriculture…where we can help maintain our competitive position in the global economy.”
(According to its literature, AFT is committed to protecting U.S. farmland. To see the entire AFT proposal, visit http://www.farmland.org/programs/campaign/default.asp)