You can't say Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns isn't interested in the opinions of farmers. Since early July, USDA has conducted 23 farm bill listening sessions, most of them attended either by Johanns or Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner.
The irony is that except for a few regional wrinkles, Johanns keeps hearing the same thing: farmers like the 2002 farm bill. At USDA Farm Bill Forums from Tennessee to Alaska, growers have said they would like to slap 2007 on the current law and move on.
Farmers attending a listening session at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines put maintaining the current farm bill at the top of their priorities, followed by improved conservation programs, expanded incentives for ethanol and other alternative fuels, helping beginning farmers and, oh yeah, stricter payment limits.
Johanns rarely comments on the ideas he hears other than to say that every suggestion has merit and that he wants farmers to keep the thought processes flowing even after the listening sessions are complete. (USDA has scheduled forums in New York, Wyoming, California and Maryland with more to follow.)
When Johanns announced the first Forum at the Illinois Future Farmers of America convention in Springfield, he laid out six questions he hoped the sessions would answer:
How should farm policy be designed to maximize U.S. competitiveness and our ability to compete in global markets?
How should farm policy address unintended consequences and ensure such consequences do not discourage new farmers from entering agriculture?
How should farm policy be designed to fairly distribute assistance to producers?
How can farm policy best achieve conservation and environmental goals?
How can federal rural and farm programs provide effective assistance in rural areas?
How should agricultural product development, marketing and research-related issues be addressed?
The questions were slanted toward the administration's philosophy that increased trade opportunities will provide a way out of agriculture's financial woes with little emphasis on maintaining or improving the farm safety net.
But farmers and farm group representatives attending the forums have told the secretary and other USDA officials repeatedly that the current farm bill provisions are needed to protect farmer incomes. Others have argued Congress must keep the current law as a bargaining tool in the Doha Round WTO negotiations.
If Johanns was surprised by the emphasis on safety net issues, he hasn't shown it. He did attempt to steer the discussion back to increased trade opportunities and the law of unintended consequences of farm program payments in the early sessions.
Some congressional staffers have laughed off the forums. While the House Agriculture Committee had discussed conducting listening sessions this fall, most believe neither body's ag committees will begin serious discussions until 2006.
Others have talked about extending the current farm bill to avoid the potential for debating a farm bill during an election year. Some also question writing a new farm bill before the WTO completes a new trade agreement.