While the Senate is less likely to go to the Republicans, polls suggest Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the current chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee will lose. If those polls are correct and Democrats keep the Senate, observers expect the chairmanship will shift from the South to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow or Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. There is also speculation that North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad could give up his seat on the Budget Committee to helm agriculture.

If the Republicans take the Senate, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss will likely become chairman.

Whatever happens, the liaisons say educating incoming legislators -- committee members, or not – is vital.

“It’s a process of education, even in the case of someone on the committee who goes from the minority to the majority, let alone coming into Congress for the first time,” says a representative of a commodity organization. “You have to help them understand how a farm bill works, why it’s important to their state and make them aware of the nuances.

“There’s a lot of turnover in Congress, despite what people commonly think. If you’re doing a farm bill every four or five years, you can run out of expertise really quickly.”

Consider this: since the 2002 farm bill there have been 46 members on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Thirty-five of them were elected to Congress since 2002. So, at most, those 35 could have worked on only one farm bill in 2008. There’s little continuity.

To get legislators up to speed on agriculture – why the farm bill is important, why direct payments shouldn’t be changed, what the SURE program is about, on and on – is very difficult.

One source says it usually takes six months before a lawmaker and their staff is sufficiently prepped. “It takes time for them to get office space sorted, get staffed up, and then accommodate us a few times over the course of a few months.”

Facing that reality, several said they have already been preparing and updating educational materials.

Generally, lawmakers stick together on economic issues important to their state. Often, that trumps party affiliation. And since that’s the case, the agriculture organizations are especially keen to bend the ear of each state’s leading farm-friendly legislator. Get in good with that lawmaker, make sure they understand agriculture issues, and they will play the role of bell-cow.

Those inexperienced with farm issues “look to someone from their delegation, maybe someone from a rural district, who has been through ag issues before and they’ll watch what they do. If you’re from (an urban area) and you aren’t familiar with agriculture, you’ll probably look to a legislator from an area in your state where there’s a lot of agriculture. If you know someone is a delegation leader in agriculture and you’re able to convince them to lean a certain way, they’ll be able to influence their colleagues.”

dbennett@farmpress