As members of Congress return to D.C. from Easter break, the trudge towards a new farm bill will begin anew. Before heading home — with claims that Congress and the Bush administration were $4 billion apart on a farm bill deal — the lawmakers did find time to extend current law through April 18.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said while “significant progress” was being made on a new bill, the short extension was “necessary.”

However, “this in no way eases pressure from the conference to come to an agreement regarding funding for the bill,” said the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “We can get this done and finishing the farm bill will be our number one priority in the coming weeks.”

However, with farmers and bankers increasingly skittish about the new farm bill’s late date, Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany — a Republican member of the House Agriculture Committee — believes the legislation should be put on hold until next year.

“Rep. Boustany continues to call for a one-year extension (of current law),” says Rick Curtsinger, Boustany spokesman. “That would provide (Louisiana growers) the certainty they need, especially in southwest Louisiana where they’re getting ready to plant now.”

The rationale: even a new farm bill would take some time to implement. Such time is untenable for Southern agriculture.

“We need to get something in place now so (Louisiana farmers) can get the loan guarantees they need to move forward.”

While Congress and the White House bicker over the proposed farm bill, the pair continues to fund wars with a loose grip on taxpayer purse strings. That fact, admits Curtsinger, is resonating with farmers.

“The farmers — especially the farther south you go — are trying to plant now. They need the loan guarantees and other programs provided for in the farm bill. The House Agriculture Committee passed unanimous, bi-partisan farm bill (legislation) out of committee last year. It was very popular.”

However, while Boustany worked to gain Republican support for the bill, “at the last minute, Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi tacked on a massive tax increase. Even worse, the taxes she proposed would have disproportionately (and) negatively impacted farmers. Those taxes were on fertilizer and other ag businesses the farmers depend on. Robbing Peter to pay Paul does nothing for our farmers.”

While Boustany will continue to “fight for a good farm bill … at present, our farmers need a one-year extension.”

Curtsinger predicts the call for such an extension will only increase as temperatures rise around the rest of the country and planting season hits regions outside the South. “Right now, only a few farmers around the country are ready to plant. But as we move further into the spring, you’ll begin hearing that from everyone.”

In calling for such an extension, Boustany has a powerful ally. In a statement released shortly after current law was extended until April 18, President Bush said Congress should focus on that date. If a deal isn’t done by then, “I call on Congress to extend current law for at least one year. While long-term extension of current law is not the desired outcome, I believe the government has a responsibility to provide America’s farmers and ranchers with a timely and predictable farm program — not multiple short-term extensions of current law. Without a predictable policy, agriculture producers will be unable to make sound business decisions with respect to this year’s crop.”

Not so fast, said Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas. “We’ve been in negotiations for what seems like forever, now,” said the Democrat. “But I think we’re getting close to an agreement between the House, Senate and White House.”

Berry says he’s fielding frequent calls from farmers and lenders and recognizes that “everyone needs some kind of security. At a time when our government just yesterday put $200 billion more into Wall Street’s problems — (a situation) they created for themselves — it seems ridiculous we can’t get an agreement on a farm bill that over its lifetime doesn’t cost that much.”

Berry says he’s “never seen the political situation we have here, which is almost gridlock. The White House isn’t interested in working with anyone. The House and Senate have had their own difficulties coming together on some matters. This is the most difficult (farm bill) I can remember.

“It’s not unusual to have parochial interests raise their heads. But this year seems to have been particularly difficult in having to deal with some of those things.”

Like Boustany, Berry lauds the House Agriculture Committee that produced a “good farm bill early.” However, that “doesn’t help anyone that’s in distress.”

While Berry said, “current law extended would be fine,” he also derided the possibility. “I just don’t see that happening. I don’t think the leadership on either side is going to take that. I’m very reluctant to put that idea out knowing it probably won’t happen.”

Even so, Berry allows that even in the best of circumstances a new farm bill is unlikely to be finished and implemented for several months.

Curtsinger is more specific. “If someone came up with the perfect farm bill that had everything needed, (Congress) passed it and the president signed it — if that all happened today — it would still take USDA time to implement the new policies. The time it would take them is these spring and summer months when the farmers need certainty. They know (the farm bill) is coming, but if the bank can’t yet give them a loan, it does no good.

“Our guys need some sort of certainty which extending the (current) farm bill would provide. It would allow them to get the loan guarantees this year and we could have a good farm bill in place next year. We need a one-year extension no matter what kind of new farm bill is being discussed or worked on.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com