The U.S. Treasury Department will always be involved in agriculture policy to some extent to provide people with food and energy, says former ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee Charlie Stenholm and current policy advisor for the law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda.

Stenholm, along with Kansas State University agricultural economics and farm policy professor Barry Flinchbaugh, debated farm policy issues recently in Forth Worth, part of the annual Ag Media Summit.

The two agreed that agriculture will remain a key issue for the U.S. government but were less certain that farm subsidies would continue to be as integral a part of farm legislation.

Stenholm said future farm laws could be different from the one passed in 2008.

Flinchbaugh said legislators need to consider changes in 2012. “I think agriculture needs to take a hard look at a revenue assurance program by 2012,” he said. “Some 20 years ago, Sen. Richard Lugar came up with a proposal that made sense. He would have taken payments being sent to farmers and substituted them with vouchers they could use to get revenue assurance policies.”

He said governments should continue with an “actuarially sound revenue assurance program.”

“Revenue assurance sounds pretty good,” Stenholm said, “until you get right down to it.” He prefers something that’s more “international market-oriented.”

Flinchbaugh said farm programs will survive in 2012 but preserving the direct payment “will be difficult,” even though it serves agriculture and the general public well.”

He said ACRE (Alternative Crop Revenue Enhancement) “is a good plan. We just made it too complicated.”

Stenholm said defending the direct payment to the general public has been difficult with high gasoline prices and high corn (and other grain) prices.

Flinchbaugh said the current farm program is “market-based and a safety net. And since 1996 we’ve done our damnedest to repeal it. But Collin Peterson is an amazing (House Agriculture Committee) chair and with him at the helm I think we’ll get a good farm bill (in 2012).”

He said the United States must remain competitive in the marketplace. But they both agree that trading on a level playing field will be difficult. “Europeans spend $2 for every $1 we spend on farm programs,” he said.

Stenholm said animal rights and animal welfare issues will become increasingly important in farm legislation. “We face the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) approach versus an animal husbandry approach. It’s an emotional issue and it’s difficult to be on the other side. PETA claims the political high ground.”

Stenholm said Ohio has taken a promising approach to animal health and welfare by putting the issue into the hands of people who understand animal husbandry. “And PETA will have a place on the board.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com