It's anyone's guess how much the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will delay discussion of the new farm bill, says USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman.
Many in the agriculture community were expecting some action from the U.S. House of Representatives by Sept. 14. Now that could be postponed for a lengthy period of time as members of Congress focus attention on the nation's terrorist crisis.
“Prior to the terrorist attacks, the farm bill was a high priority. But now, with this crisis, it has just not happened. It's important at this point to remember that no matter what may happen in terms of a new farm bill, the current law will not expire for another year, so we do have some flexibility,” Veneman says.
The Bush administration expects international trade to continue on a normal basis, meanwhile, despite the nation's new war against terrorism. “We don't at this point anticipate major disruptions of trade flow. We have not adjusted our trade numbers for the coming year,” Veneman says.
The secretary spoke at a Washington press conference to release the Bush administration's review of the food and agriculture system, Food and Agricultural Policy: Taking Stock for the New Century. The 111-page document is designed to be a broad look at U.S. farm policies and the nation's role in the global agricultural economy.
It contains few specific administration proposals, however.
“It is not a farm bill book. It will give us a means by which we can frame the debate for food and farm policy for the future,” Veneman says.
She says policy makers should examine past programs and, where necessary, define new goals and principles to guide the growth of the industry.
“Our challenge today is to address the vital forces of change while at the same time modernizing the foundations of our farm and food system to ensure continued growth and development for the 21st century. Farmers today operate in a global, technologically advanced, rapidly diversifying, highly competitive environment that is driven by increasingly sophisticated consumers. The various policies, programs, and supporting infrastructure that serve our food system will require updating to meet future needs,” Veneman says.
Old policies designed for what she terms, “an isolated economy,” won't work for the new, rapidly expanding food and agriculture system, she says.
One key, she says, is to make certain that farm and trade policies are fully compatible. “We want domestic policy to be consistent with trade policy. It means we have certain commitments under the World Trade Organization's Uruguay Round, based upon a historical level of government farm support. We want to make sure we don't have programs that put us over the limit in terms of our World Trade Organization commitments,” she says.
The report does contain hints of what the Bush administration considers important in farm policy. It says that many federal farm programs implemented since the 1930s did not work, and implies that neither did the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act of 1996, which was designed to give farmers cropping flexibility and decouple program benefits. The current law inflated land prices, the report says, and directs program benefits to only 40 percent of the nation's farms.
Calling for what it terms, “a market-oriented economic safety net for farmers,” the administration seems to want to extend help to farms beyond those traditionally benefiting from federal programs. Veneman notes that while 150,000 farmers produce 70 percent of nation's food and fiber, an additional 2 million meet the federal criterion of selling at least $1,000 worth of product annually.
“The commercial operations make up only one segment of our farm community. The number of farms has actually increased slightly because people want to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the rural lifestyle. We're also seeing a lot of small acreages producing for niche markets. As biotech increases, we're going to see more growers producing specialty crops. We're going to see more specialty chemicals derived from plants, like soy ink. The change is tremendous,” Veneman says.
“Farm policy must promote sustainable prosperity for farmers and agriculture and rural communities without engendering long-term dependence on direct government support.”
Some of this support may come through conservation policy designed to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and topsoil. Observing that the 150,000 farmers producing 70 percent of the nation's farm output only own one-third of the land, Veneman says she expects conservation programs to be broadly applicable to all agriculture sectors.
“It doesn't matter how big or small you are, we need programs for all of agriculture,” she says.
Veneman says she does not anticipate additional land retirement programs. “When looking at conservation programs, we traditionally look at taking land out of production. But I don't think we'll do that. The question is, how do we design programs to help farms enhance conservation on existing land?” she says.