Undersecretary of Agriculture J.B. Penn says it would be impossible to predict when a House-Senate conference committee will complete its work on the new farm bill. But he acknowledged that USDA officials would be happy if it happened before Congress begins its Easter recess.

Responding to a question about the last date that Congress could pass a bill and still have it implemented in time for the 2002 planting season, Penn said the “old hands” with farm bill experience in Washington are giving estimates that range from three weeks to six months for the conference committee's deliberations.

(Coincidentally, the staffs of prospective members of the committee began meeting Feb. 21, the same day that Penn helped kick off USDA's 78th annual Agricultural Outlook Forum. Senators and House members were expected to meet the week of Feb. 25.)

“With respect to the timing of the new farm bill, this is a very complex situation,” said Penn, undersecretary of agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. “What some people don't realize is that we at USDA are implementing the seventh and final year of the FAIR Act right now.

“We have probably already disbursed three-fourths of the $4 billion in Agricultural Market Transition Act payments that were due to be made in the final year of Freedom to Farm, and we're having to make other decisions for the 2002 season.”

Penn said that both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill contain fairly substantial changes, including updating farmers' crop bases and possibly their payment yields; the latter being something that hasn't been done since 1985.

“This will require entry of massive amounts of data and, possibly, the development of new software,” he noted. “It may be that each farmer who grows a program crop will have to come in to his county office. So, the potential changes from this new legislation are absolutely enormous.”

Penn, a former vice president with Sparks Companies in Memphis, Tenn., said USDA has not attempted to pick out a specific date, after which it could not implement the farm bill for the 2002 crop season.

“We are trying to anticipate as much of this as we possibly can,” he said. “We have already mobilized the Farm Service Agency staff and have had major meetings in Kansas City and Washington. So, we're working feverishly to try to prepare for the passage of the bill.

“As for the timing of the bill, we would be very hopeful that the conference committee could accomplish its task before the Easter recess,” he noted. “That would make our life a lot easier. It would be very helpful to us for implementing the bill for the 2002 crop year.”

Commenting on the difficulty of estimating a timetable in his speech, Penn said, “It is very clear that we have two products on the table, which are substantially different, and there are some highly contentious issues that face the conferees.”

The first is the difference in spending levels with the House bill allocating $33 billion for commodity programs over five years and the Senate bill $10 billion above that. “It brings to mind that old challenge about stuffing 10 pounds of something in a 5-pound bag,” he said.

“Next are the loan rate levels. The Senate bill levels are well above the House, 10 to 20 percent above, except for soybeans, which are only about 5 percent above. And then there are payment limits, and this has proved to be highly controversial. It brings the big farm/small farm issue, selected commodity and regional issues all wrapped together into one big highly contentious issue.”

Beyond those, conferees will be dealing with a water amendment, another regional concern that involves sensitive water rights; packer ownership of livestock, another regional issue with strongly held views on both sides; and dairy provisions with more of the same.

“These issues alone, not to mention a whole host of less controversial and less visible issues, illustrate why the length of the conference, how long it's going to take to get all this resolved, is just simply impossible to predict.”

Penn also declined to say if the administration had drawn a “line in the sand” on what the president would and would not accept in a new farm bill.

“We are about four hours away from the start of the conference committee deliberations, and I am not about to start discussing these issues, I am not about to reveal a carefully crafted administration strategy on the farm bill.

“There are a lot of issues in this bill, and there will be a lot of trade-offs to try to achieve the things we would like to achieve. The secretary of agriculture has said there are five principles that she would like to see in a farm bill, and we will try to maximize the impact of those five principles.”

Among those are that the new farm bill must provide a safety net for farmers without encouraging them to overproduce; it must support trade and be consistent with the United States' international obligations; and it must help farmers and ranchers address environmental concerns.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.