Having sat through strife-filled hearings and town hall meetings as a former USDA acting- and under-secretary, Chuck Conner is used to taking heat over farm policy positions. This time around, though, instead of taking heat, Conner will be giving it in his role as president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Considering the rush to finish the last farm bill, the problems with implementation (which continue to this day), and regional problems with certain programs, Conner says it is wise to start the next farm bill debate so early.

Conner spoke with Farm Press about the importance of co-ops, the need for agricultural factions to stick together, the necessity of expanding agricultural trade, and antitrust concerns. Among his comments:

As we enter the next farm bill debate – and, obviously, you’ve had great experience with the machinations that go into making a farm bill – I wonder if you would contrast (your former job at USDA) with your position now?

“I’m now president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. We represent all the farmer-owned cooperatives in the country that have a great, very diverse, stake in the farm bill debate. (Concerns) range from the cotton, rice and grain interests who have always had a big stake in Title 1 (dealing with price supports for farm commodities).

“We also represent all the producers of specialty crops who market their produce through farmer-owned cooperatives. They have a big interest in making sure fruits and vegetables are treated fairly in the debate.

“I’d also add all our producers are interested in sustainability and conservation. That farm bill title is huge for them, as well.

“The trade title (is also important). I represent commodities like some of the tree nuts where 70 percent of their output is exported.

“So, we have a huge stake in the farm bill debate. This will be my seventh farm bill. I’m anxious to get into it and look at it from the perspective of the co-ops.”

On the push-and-pull between the specialty crops and row crops (traditionally those most dealt with in the farm bill)…

“We hope the relationship is a positive one.

“Broadly speaking, I think in the next farm bill debate, commercial and family farm agriculture really need to stick together. We’re under attack in commercial agriculture from a number of outside interests. We don’t need a lot of family fights and feuds to divide us.

“There are a number of threats to agriculture, in general, going on in the world and we need to work together to fight against (them).

“In terms of the conflict, certainly specialty crop producers I talk to and those we represent aren’t interested in getting into the Title 1 debate in terms of farm price supports.

“Historically, where there has been some conflict is just the dollars allocated to each title. Do we use Title 1 dollars for other purposes including help for specialty crops?

“I don’t know we can predict how that’ll play out because we just don’t know the budget situation for the farm bill yet. And we won’t know for a while.”