It's tough being the executive director or lobbyist for a farm organization in times like these. As the agricultural community holds its breath, association execs are calmly waiting for members of the House-Senate conference committee to actually sit down and begin hard negotiations on a farm bill.

“The congressional staffs were going through the rural development title today,” said one in a March 6 interview. “They probably won't get to the commodity title until the end of this week at the earliest.”

Beneath a calm exterior, the executive vice president knows his members are hanging on every word that comes out of Washington. He also knows his members won't forget the outcome of the debate over the House and Senate bills and, more specifically, payment limits. “I've told our farmers they had better go back and farm and our bankers to go back and bank,” he said. “I can't predict when we will have a farm bill, but we will have a pretty good idea by the Easter recess.”

As Easter approaches, a unified strategy appears to be emerging from the major farm groups. It may differ in specifics, but focuses primarily on passing the House version of the farm bill.

Farm Bureau's list of priorities begins with a call for adoption of the House bill's provisions on fixed decoupled payments, loan rates, counter-cyclical programs and payment limits. The Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council's statement of principles asks conferees to work from the House bill since “it is most favorable to farmers and includes no unfriendly amendments.”

Both Farm Bureau, the nation's largest farm organization, and Delta Council, one of the smaller, oppose the Senate version's incremental reductions in fixed or AMTA and counter-cyclical payments over the five-year life of the bill.

In a letter to the conferees, Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman expressed concern about the Senate bill's “reduction of decoupled payments and the bill's heavy reliance on marketing loans and target prices for a safety net.”

According to Stallman, a Texas farmer, a producer only receives a payment under the marketing loan program if a crop is harvested. “If there is a crop failure, he receives no payment. Even under the target price proposal, crop failures often result in prices above the target price.”

Delta Council, meanwhile, says it supports the combination of fixed and counter-cyclical income protection features in both bills, but “we consider it vitally important that both fixed and counter-cyclical income protection features remain level throughout the term of the next farm bill rather than declining as in current law and the Senate-passed bill.”

Farm Bureau also opposes “the onerous payment limit in the Senate bill, which imposes severe limitations and means tests on producers and substantially reduces support from current levels at a time of severe economic pressures.”

Back to a timetable, the harsh reality, one exec said, is that “no one here (in Washington) is concerned about whether they pass a farm bill before planting season begins. And the farm bill is so deeply rooted in everything else that they can't separate it from anything else.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.