For all of the ebullience that followed the signing of the new farm bill, there was a touch of sadness as the two-year effort to bring meaningful assistance to farmers drew to a close.
Many farmers were dismayed by the criticism from the big daily newspapers, the European Union and even farm-state members of Congress. But they were also chagrined by the fact that the farm bill process took so long, spilling over into this year's planting season.
When the Senate finally passed the farm bill conference report, 64-35, the afternoon of May 8, more than one grower or ag industry member was heard to remark: “Too bad it came too late.”
Few were complaining about the bill. Most Southern, row crop producers never expected to get the kind of help the legislation promises to provide. Nor did they think Rep. Larry Combest, the conference chairman, and Rep. Charlie Stenholm, the House conferees' ranking member, would work their magic with the Grassley payment limits amendment.
Still, most growers know at least one farmer or several farmers who didn't plant a crop this year because they or their lenders finally despaired of seeing new legislation that would bring certainty to their situation.
“I think the bill is good for farmers,” said Cecil Williams, executive vice president of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas, who is retiring after working on more farm bills than he may care to remember. “The real problem is that we are losing farmers so fast. We're going to get to the point where there is nobody to work this ground.”
Some farmers weren't able to put together financing for 2002 prior to the signing of the bill, “and some farmers went out. If we had been faced with three more years of what we've faced, there would be hardly anybody left farming. We'd have the big corporations running agriculture.”
Farmers had to be cheered by the Bush administration's decision to come out fighting for legislation that it did not prefer. Three days after the signing ceremony, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development told a group of trade and finance ministers from the European Union to clean up their own act before they criticized others.
“I would just urge the Europeans to stop their protectionist stand and look at their own policies, which are the problem,” Andrew Natsios was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. “I think there's a little hypocrisy in arguing that our subsidies are the problem. If the Europeans would reform their subsidies, we'd certainly be willing to discuss the subject.”
Since then, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has turned the criticism back on the source on several occasions, even writing a “letter to the editor” to farm newspapers, refuting some of the “inaccuracies.”
While they applaud such efforts, producers also know the farm bill battle may not be over; that the Sen. Grassleys and Lugars are trying to attach payment limit amendments to other bills or water down the legislation.
And that may be the saddest part of all: that those who represent such large farm states are still doing their best to hurt working farmers.