For most people, except maybe for Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, $16 billion is a lot of money. Former National Cotton Council Chairman Kenneth Hood would concede that going into the debate on the 2007 farm bill.

In the bigger picture, however, $16 billion is miniscule, accounting for only 0.6 of a percent of the federal budget, according to Hood, a farmer, ginner and precision agriculture advocate from Perthshire, Miss.

“Let’s put that in perspective,” Hood told a group of young farmers and ranchers. “The current farm bill costs $16 billion. A single B-2 bomber costs $1 billion. The Iraq War has already cost in excess of $200 billion. The Hurricane Katrina recovery is now over $200 billion.

“The task that you and I face is to convince America that it is worth that $16 billion a year to ensure that we produce an abundant supply of food and fiber here in the United States.”

Speaking at a Mississippi Farm Bureau Region One Young Farmer/Rancher Symposium in Batesville, Hood said the outlook for a new farm bill is fraught with uncertainty.

“It changes every 30 days,” he said. “Forty-five days ago I would have guaranteed you we would have an extension of the current law. I just got back from Washington, and I would almost guarantee you we won’t have an extension of the current law.”

That means the writing of a new farm bill and any number of challenges for farmers, including the ongoing WTO negotiations, the federal budget deficit, budget pressures from the Iraq War and this fall’s mid-term, congressional elections.

“We’ve been fairly secure with the leadership we’ve enjoyed in the House and Senate,” he said. “But if this thing turns around like some are projecting, we won’t have the same committee chairmen that we have now. Where would we be without Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Sen. Thad Cochran and other leaders?

“If we lose them (the current chairmen of the Agriculture Committee and the Appropriations Committee), things won’t be the same for agriculture. And the members of those committees in the Senate and the House will change, as well.”

All of these challenges — the Doha Round, the federal budget deficit, and changes in Congress — could alter the landscape for agriculture in the coming years, he said.

“So what is the future of domestic support programs?” he asked. “What’s the future of our counter-cyclical payment? The loan deficiency payment? Maybe even the CCC loan itself? There’s a lot of heat on it right now.”

Hood said southern farmers are fortunate to have two organizations — the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cotton Council — representing them in the effort to write and pass a new farm bill.

“Both of them have been in the forefront of agricultural changes,” he said. “Both of them helped us overcome the challenges that we have. But they also pursue the opportunities that are out there for us. They are the envy of all others.”

The debate over the next farm bill can be summed up in a few words, he said. “On one side are those who fear payments will be cut. On the other, you’ve got those who think payments are too high. In some way, form or fashion, something will have to pull these two sides closer together.”

Farmers who have always been inventive when it comes to farm policy — with ideas such as the marketing loan and counter-cyclical payments — must rise to the occasion again, Hood noted.

“As Sen. Cochran told me in one of my last visits, ‘You’d better go home and do some serious, innovative thinking,’” said Hood. “They need help. They want to know what can we do to replace the counter-cyclical payment, for example.

“We’ve got to come up with new ideas to offset the potential reduction in payments because not only will this affect income, it’s going to affect equity. We don’t have to go back very far to the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act to see what it did to our local communities. Look at what happened to equity.”

One of the questions that has to be answered is how much “pain” farmers can stand in the name of free trade.

“That’s what we hear about all the time — free trade and market access,” he said. “Market access is not worth a flip if the price is so low that you can’t sell your crop. Until the rest of the world reaches our standard of living, we cannot maintain our domestic food supply without providing support to keep the farmer in business.”

Another question farmers must answer is whether the United States will “sit idly by” and watch production agriculture go the way of steel, gas, oil, fertilizer and, more recently, the textile industry.

“I don’t want my children and grandchildren having to depend on another country for a loaf of bread, and I don’t think you do, either,” said Hood. “We’ve got to change the mindset of people in the United States so that we don’t have to depend on other countries for all of the necessities of life.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com