Federal farm bills attract monikers. Remember Freedom to Farm/Freedom to Fail?

It may be a challenge to attach a catchy handle to the 2007 farm bill now in the embryonic stage of development. It may take a funky acronym to identify the multitude of factors — outside of U.S. production agriculture — influencing the drafting of new federal farm policy.

Doha, WTO, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and the federal deficit will have more influence on federal farm policy over the next five years than what American agriculture may need to protect the U.S. supply of food and fiber.

How about the “DOWOSE 2007 Farm Bill?”

World trade issues have long influenced U.S. farm policy, however, influences outside of the U.S. have become so pervasive that national farm policy expert and rice industry lobbyist Randy Russell of Washington, D.C., told the annual meeting of the California Rice Commission recently that writing a new federal farm bill may be delayed a year until the upcoming Doha round of the World Trade Organization talks is completed.

He said it may be more practical to extend the current farm bill a year and wait for WTO to make up its mind than to draft a new farm bill only to be forced to rewrite it a year or two later based on WTO rulings.

The fallout from the recent WTO ruling on Brazil's complaint against the U.S. cotton program is vivid evidence that is not too far fetched.

From WTO's ruling in favor of Brazil over the U.S., already gone is the Step 2 market enhancement program for cotton. Changes have been made to government guaranteed loans for export commodities. Soon to fall may be farm policy that precludes planting fruits and vegetables on program crop land, said Russell. All of those were cited by WTO in agreeing with Brazil that U.S. farm policy hurt Brazil's cotton industry.

Eye pie portion

Already, Russell said, the nation's fruit and vegetable producers are counting the potential cost of the removal of program crop land ban and are getting ready to step to the plate to go after a big piece of the new farm bill cash pie. After all, fruits and vegetables represent 25 percent of the nation's agricultural income, noted Russell.

Russell also expects this segment of agriculture to be part of an agriculture department family feud to get as much as possible from a farm bill that will likely be 25 percent smaller than the current one, he said. The other elements of an “interfamily fight like you have not seen before” will be program crop producers; the nutrition/food stamp arm of USDA and the wildlife and conservation arm.

While they are grabbing for the cash with the right arm, they'll be fending off with the left outsiders both domestically and internationally who want to make the pie even smaller.

One of the international lobbyists Russell identified is Oxfam International, a confederation of 12 organizations working together with over 3,000 partners in more than 100 countries to find “lasting solutions to poverty, suffering and injustice,” according to its Web site.

Russell said Oxfam is spending $10 million to dismantle U.S. farm programs to enable farmers in impoverished countries to better compete in world trade.

Oxfam represents Mexico, South America, Central and East Africa, Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, Maghreb and Middle East, Pacific.

Perfect storm?

Many African nations have complained that U.S. farm policy has hampered their farmers in selling commodities on the world market and they are mounting a lobbying effort through Oxfam to change U.S. farm policy.

On the domestic side, Russell describes the atmosphere in Washington as “not conducive to writing a farm bill.” It is the “most partisan environment” he has seen in more than 25 years working in the nation's capitol where political haggling over a mounting federal deficit compounded by the growing price tag for Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid has the two political parties widely divided. He called the farm bill debate a “perfect storm brewing in Washington.”

Entitlement programs like Medicare are taking a massive chunk of the federal budget, leaving non-entitlement programs like the federal farm program vulnerable in efforts to reduce spending and the deficit.

Russell predicts federal farm program funding will fall to $10 billion to $12 billion annually from the current $20 billion.

He expects a “slight reduction” in counter-cyclical payments and attacks on payment limitations to continue.

If opponents of the federal farm program go after anything, it will be the 3-entity rule and generic certificates, said Russell. Changes in the 3-entity rule would not have as great an impact in California as in other states, said Russell. If the 3-entity rule is changed, it would not do away with the husband and wife farm ownership provision, predicted Russell.

Rice's dependency on federal support is the lowest among the major commodities. This should put rice in a better position in the farm bill debate, said Russell. Also helping rice will be its record, especially in California, of active conservation efforts tied to wildlife habitat protection.

He praised the California rice industry for its “outstanding job” of leadership in conservation areas. Support for on-farm conservation is expected to be strong even in a pared down farm program and this is where the California rice industry would benefit, said Russell.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com