CHARLESTON, S.C. — Budget deficits, global trade issues, and maintaining political awareness of agriculture's importance will be key challenges in the new Congress, says Tom Sell, deputy staff director for the House Agriculture Committee.

"We've been very fortunate the last five years to have huge surpluses in the Treasury, which is one reason we were able to get congressional approval for more than $30 billion in ad hoc payments to farmers," he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual meeting at Charleston.

"But those days are gone; this year, we're facing a $150 billion federal budget deficit."

Even though those payments were desperately needed by an agriculture beset by Depression-era commodity prices and Freedom to Farm legislation that "didn't have any real support and didn't provide a safety net for farmers," Sell said, "this wasn't the best way to run things from a government perspective, from the farmers' perspective, or from the perspective of bankers who help finance the nation's farmers.

"Fortunately, there was a budget surplus and we were able to make our argument successfully."

The 2002 farm bill, which provides a safety net for farmers, was "something we all felt good about, because it will provide a stability that agriculture didn't have before, and it's better than having to go to Congress every year to beg and plead for ad hoc assistance."

In the global policy arena, Sell said, the United States is in the process of renegotiating the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), scheduled for completion in 2005, and negotiations are ongoing with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"All these negotiations are important to agriculture, to the chemical and fertilizer industries, and we've got to keep a sharp eye on these talks in order to protect our interests in terms of access to foreign markets and dealing with regulatory issues."

Maintaining a high level of awareness for U.S. agriculture's importance to the nation and the world will continue to be a challenge, Sell said.

"In the House of Representatives, each of the 435 members represents about 600,000 people. Only about 80 of those members represent rural areas. For any ag legislation to pass, 218 votes are needed.

"This means we have to continue working very hard to help all those members from non-rural districts to understand agriculture, its key role in the nation's economy, and its needs for a strong future. It's not easy to convince members from New York or other urban areas of the importance of agricultural legislation."

Sell also cautioned that "just because the Bush administration is friendlier to agriculture doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels. We're going to have to defend this farm bill in the years ahead, particularly on the issue of payment limitations."

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.