When congressional agriculture committees start hammering out details of the 2012 farm bill, “We aren’t going to be able to just make a carbon copy of the 2008 legislation,” says Tara Smith, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“We can’t just change the numbers, change the years, and have a 2012 farm bill that will get passed,” she said at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Winter Commodity Conference. “We’re facing by far the worst budget situation we’ve ever been in when writing a farm bill, and I think it will dominate the discussions going forward. From here on out, the budget is going to overshadow everything related to the farm bill.

“There’s going to be less money available, and any changes we want to make to farm programs are going to have to be paid for by taking money from other farm programs — which means agriculture is going to have some very tough choices to make as we write this next farm bill.

“Looking at the budget numbers is really depressing. But, it’s an issue that is driving voters, and in the recent mid-term elections we saw a lot of members of Congress elected on the basis of their fiscal conservatism. They’re going to be expected to deliver on their campaign promises of budget cuts and changes to the budget environment.”

One of the challenges agriculture is going to face, Smith says, is that 38 programs in the 2008 farm bill have absolutely no budget. If we want to continue those programs — and rest assured, there is a constituency for every one of them — money will have to be taken from someone else to do it.

“There’s a chance we’ll have to go through a budget reconciliation process in 2011 and 2012 before we even get into writing a farm bill, which means agriculture could have to take cuts as early as this year.”