Driving along Highway 61 in the north Delta, you can't help notice the crops are late. Corn is barely out of the ground, cotton and soybeans have yet to emerge in the few fields that are planted and rice is nowhere to be found. The only crop on schedule is wheat.
Rain, flooding and cool temperatures have delayed planting from three to four weeks in much of the Delta. (In contrast, corn was waist high at this time last year and most of the rice and soybeans and a fair amount of cotton had already emerged.)
Despite the uncertainty over weather and commodity prices, Mid-South farmers - and those in other regions judging from the crop reports - aren't waiting on a new farm bill. But that doesn't mean producers aren't concerned about the lack of a new law.
On one hand, most Southern row crop farmers believe that if push comes to shove, Congress will extend the current law — which is what many of them favored at the outset. On the other, many wonder what will happen if Congress simply kicks the bill forward rather than settling the issue now?
If you listen to the national media or the environmental groups or the White House, you could easily get the impression farmers don't need a new farm bill. One national publication recently editorialized that — given the current price outlook - this would be a good time to dispense with the legislation.
Bush administration officials have been reminding the audiences they speak to that commodity prices have rarely been higher than they are today so the farm bill spending increases some congressional leaders are fighting for aren't justified.
All the talk about commodity prices entering a new era reminds me of a speech several years ago in which a prominent cotton merchant said producers didn't have to worry about the CCC loan rate anymore because futures had “reached a new plateau” (of 75 cents per pound).
Within 12 months, cotton futures had dipped to 50 cents and farmers were putting cotton in the loan as fast as they could fill out the loan forms.
Most producers would be ecstatic if corn, soybean and wheat prices remained at current levels, but the older ones have seen an ethanol bubble burst once before and know speculators could leave these markets just as quickly as they came in.
The biggest losers if Congress does nothing but extend the farm bill another year will be fruit and vegetable producers, who would not see the new research and promotion funding they fought for in the House and Senate farm bills, and wheat and soybean growers who sought a rebalancing of their target prices and loan rates.
But all growers will suffer from the idea that agriculture isn't important enough for Congress and the White House to sit down and put together policy that will bring stability to the nation's food supply — in good times and bad.