The first time I read that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns planned to conduct a four-hour listening session on the next farm bill I thought it must be a misprint. Four hours seemed a bit much even for the most die-hard farm policy wonk.
But, thanks to the adept handling of the audience and callers by Johanns and veteran farm broadcaster Orion Samuelson, the program was not the ordeal it could have been even if it did not provide many break-through ideas on farm policy.
The live broadcast did have its moments. The first caller — from Colorado — said he was a victim of discrimination by USDA and the third — from Montana — said U.S. farmers should stop exporting commodities at a loss. He recommended returning farm program payments to a percentage of parity, the 1910 formula used in the 1930s to support commodity prices.
Samuelson did not allow either to go the full two-minute allotment that was supposed to have given each speaker, advising them to send details of their complaints or suggestions to Johanns.
Planners also took steps to get the first Farm Bill Forum started on a positive note by inviting students from the Tennessee Future Farmers of America Association and 4-H Club Congress to make the opening statements in Nashville's RFD-TV studios.
Tennessee FFA President Heather McLean urged Johanns to invest more money in FFA and agricultural science education programs while state 4-H Governor Tyler Boyd noted that Congress should put more emphasis on science and research programs because “everyone who lives in the United States is affected in some way by agriculture.”
Some speakers and callers appeared to be just getting started good when Samuelson called time on them while others appeared to have timed their presentations down to the second.
Told by Samuelson that he would have to cut him off, Jim Byford, associate dean at the University of Tennessee-Martin, and a columnist for Southeast Farm Press, laughed and said: “It's been done before.”
While Johanns said he was beginning the sessions — he announced the dates and locations for three more forums — with an open mind, he seemed to lock in on comments by Humboldt, Tenn., producer Jason Luckey that the 2002 farm bill's direct payments had resulted in higher cash rents in west Tennessee.
“Some economists maintain that the farm legislation has capitalized the dollars into higher rents and higher land costs,” he said. “If that is the case, that's what you heard from that one speaker who said, ‘I loved this farm bill when it passed, but it hasn't really helped me.’ Land costs and cash rents have gotten higher, and he hasn't benefited from the programs.” (He also acknowledged the current law has considerable support.)
“The other thing that troubles me is whether you are giving these young people an opportunity to farm or are you running prices so high that it's eventually going to become all absentee ownership and contract farming?”