The Bush administration appears to be signaling Congress that it will not support spending $171 billion for a new 10-year farm bill, at least not until it has a better handle on the price tag for its war on terrorism.

Testifying before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the administration is uncertain whether enough funding is available for the farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last July. The bill, the Farm Security Act of 2001, provides an additional $73.5 billion over current farm spending.

“The budget is uncertain,” she said, referring to the situation created by the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York on Sept. 11. “I can't tell you where the budget is going to go with regard to anything.”

In her Senate Agriculture Committee testimony and in a press conference in which she unveiled USDA's report on Food and Agricultural Policy for the New Century, the secretary declined to comment on the House Ag Committee farm bill.

But the report - and her testimony - left little doubt that USDA senior officials believe it is time for a change of direction in farm legislation no matter how much funding is available.

“Our challenge today is to address the vital forces of change while at the same time modernizing the foundations of our farm and food system to ensure continued growth and development for the 21st Century,” she said.

“Farmers today operate in a global, technologically advanced, rapidly diversifying, highly competitive environment that is driven by increasingly sophisticated consumers. The various policies, programs and supporting infrastructure that serve our food system will require updating to meet future needs.”

Translation: The administration is not exactly thrilled with the House Ag Committee bill, which continues the policies of past farm bills, including the target price-deficiency payment provisions of 1980s-era legislation.

The first two points in the USDA report denote what appear to have become guiding principles for administration farm policy; that is, that farm programs should not be “once size fits all,” and that current programs are encouraging a cycle of overproduction and lower prices.

The report also contends that “trade policy must focus on gaining access to foreign markets through tariff reduction and the elimination of trade distorting subsidies and be supported by domestic policy that meets our existing international obligations,” a theme the secretary has repeated in several speeches.

“We must help our farmers expand into new markets if they are going to succeed in this ever-changing environment,” Veneman said. “Otherwise farmers will be left behind. We need the tools - like Trade Promotion Authority - to open new markets and reduce tariffs so our farmers can better compete in the world marketplace.”

In her testimony, the secretary said she was not talking about eliminating farm programs. “We're talking about broadening our approach to farmers and rural communities to make sure that they return to profitability,” she noted.

The secretary and the report obviously have admirable goals that will benefit farmers down the road. The question no one in the administration is answering is how many farmers will go out of business before they reach this brave new world of farming.

(More information can be found on the Internet at http://agriculture.senate.gov.)