What will the next farm bill be like? The outcome of the November presidential and congressional elections will be a major determining factor, says Christy Syfert, House Agriculture Committee staff member for commodity programs.

“Whoever is president will determine who is secretary of agriculture, and the elections will decide who will control the Senate and determine leadership in the House.”

Beyond that, money will be a key consideration, she told members of the Cotton Foundation and the American Cotton Producers Association at their joint meeting at Albuquerque, N.M.

“We were very fortunate when developing the last farm bill to have a Treasury surplus and to have support by those in Congress who were sympathetic to agriculture after it had come through several years of economic crisis.

“This time around, people have indicated agriculture may have a big bullseye painted on it in terms of funding. Some members of Congress don’t feel agriculture should be supported as it is, especially when it comes to the issue of payment limitations.

“Others look at Brazil’s World Trade Organization complaint and say, ‘These supports aren’t fair — why are we doing this for agriculture?’ So, I think we’re really going to have a fight on our hands.”

Syfert says, “We were fortunate in appropriations this year not to have payment limitations targeted in the House. The Senate hasn’t taken it up, but everyone knows the senator from Iowa (Republican Charles Grassley) has been coming after us on the payment limitations issue.”

Cotton “is not the only red-headed stepchild” in agriculture, Syfert says, with any number of opponents lined up to take potshots at farm programs.

“For example, corn and sugar are being targeted with obesity issues. Opponents claim that because farm programs have made food so cheap, they are a factor in making Americans too fat. This has been played up in the national media, and there have been a number of conferences on the subject. It’s just one of many pressures we’ll have to deal with.”

How the new farm bill will look will also depend a lot on what comes out of hearings in Washington and across the country, Syfert says.

“We spent a lot of time on the 2002 bill, with a series of hearings to get input from all parties.” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., “saw a lot of benefit in that hearings process, and at some point in 2005 he wants to start it again, looking at all aspects of the farm bill and farm programs. He wants to get as much input as possible.”

While there is general agreement not to change the present farm bill during its seven-year life, Syfert says, “if we’re told we have to change it, we’ll consider our options. But we’ll come to the farm community for input as to priorities.”

Brazil’s complaint to the WTO about the U.S. cotton program “makes me very nervous,” she says.

“As a farmer’s daughter, it scares me to death. Even though I’ve not seen the confidential report, as one who works on commodity programs, I’m very concerned.

“We wrote the current farm bill in the belief that our programs were WTO-compliant. We worked closely with the U.S. Trade Representative and the USDA. This case has many potential adverse consequences for everyone in agriculture, and many people question how much the WTO and its definitions will affect farm bill legislation.”

There are “many concerns,” Syfert says, about the WTO framework agreement, and its reported requirement for a 20 percent reduction in domestic farm supports. “It’s a lot like the farm bill: the devil is in the details. We have a lot of questions about what the outcome of this agreement will be.

“This is a big picture framework. Future discussions will bring out the details, and we’ll have to judge it on what we learn as we go along. At this point, we’re glad there has been some progress.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com