Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns released a summary of the more than 4,000 comments made at the Farm Bill Forums USDA held in 48 states last year. (Louisiana and Mississippi were skipped because of the hurricanes, according to the secretary.)

The summary is impressive both from the number of hours Johanns and other USDA officials sat and listened to people talk about the farm bill — 66 hours for Johanns — and the breadth and depth of the information it contains.

USDA personnel spent months analyzing the hundreds of pages of transcripts compiled from the 52 listening sessions. From those, they compiled 41 summary papers that contain background information on their topics and the opinions and suggestions expressed.

The summary paper for the direct and counter-cyclical program, for example, runs five pages that include tables listing payment rates for the two segments of the DCP program and how much the federal government spent on those for each commodity in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

The papers are a treasure trove for policy wonks and ag journalists who might not be able to find the target price for oats or that USDA made $69.13 million in direct payments to peanut farmers in 2005 in their filing systems.

The USDA analysts acknowledged that many commentators said they support the current DCP and its continuation in the next farm bill. But they also said “others maintained that the current commodity support program fuels overproduction, lowers market prices, increases taxpayer support and damages rural communities.”

The detailed suggestions include a perennial complaint from farmers: Crop yields established 20 years ago under the 1985 farm bill are not representative of today’s conditions.

“I said at the outset of our nationwide tour that I hoped for an open, honest exchange of ideas about future farm policy, and thousands of people responded to that request with thoughtful, candid comments,” said Johanns. “My direction is to be open and transparent about the analysis phase of our farm bill preparations.”

The next step for USDA is to “glean” from the summary papers a number of themes for further study. An analysis of each theme, to be led by Keith Collins, USDA’s chief economist, will be posted on the USDA Web site when it is completed.

Johanns said the latter will contain factual, unbiased information. That would be good news to supporters of the current farm bill who have heard Johanns criticize the 2002 legislation more often than not in recent months.

Speaking of toeing the administration line, the March 29 announcement that Josh Bolten would succeed Andrew Card as White House chief of staff was not necessarily good news for farmers. Bolten, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget, reportedly has been an ardent critic of farm spending in the administration.

Broadening his circle of influence in the White House can only mean that extending the current law or its provisions will become more difficult.

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