As the Senate returns to work on a 2001 farm bill, an amendment written by Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas is getting a second look, especially since it has won the support of the Bush administration in recent days.

At press time, Senate leaders were expected to complete action on the defense appropriations bill and turn their attention to a new farm bill, according to aides to Cochran.

“It will take a lot of work, but it is certainly possible that we can get a farm bill approved in 2001,” said Hunter Moorhead, speaking to Delta Council members attending the group's fall board of directors meeting in Greenville, Miss.

“We're taking it one step at a time, but we are a lot closer than where most people thought we would be just a few short weeks ago.”

The farm bill debate will begin with Sen. Tom Harkin's farm bill proposal, which was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee just before Thanksgiving. Senators Cochran and Roberts offered their amendment to the Ag Committee, but it did not receive enough votes.

Moorhead said the Harkin or Committee bill has since been extensively rewritten because it exceeded budget targets. The money-saving changes, according to Moorhead, were mainly made to the dairy section of the legislation.

“We'd had lots of agreements and some disagreements, but it's slowly all coming together,” he says. “We're getting more and more support in the Senate, and we're hearing more favorable comments for the Cochran-Roberts proposal with each passing day.”

The Cochran legislation, he says, will provide an AMTA-style payment of 14.81 cents per pound that is fixed over the five-year life of the farm bill. “This bill provides farmers with exactly what they need to go to their lenders and that's very important.”

The chief target of criticism for the Cochran-Roberts amendment has been a provision that would provide government-matching funds of up to $10,000 for any money that farmers were able to place in a farm savings account. Farmers could withdraw the money in years when revenues dropped below a five-year average.

The farm savings account would be in place of the target price, counter-cyclical payment provisions of both the House and Senate Ag Committee bills, which would provide a price guarantee of either 73.9 or 68.5 cents per pound.

“This office will not introduce a farm bill with Cochran's name on it that will hurt cotton,” said Mark Keenum, Sen. Cochran's chief of staff. “In addition, we have the president supporting the Cochran-Roberts bill, and I'm afraid that may be the only bill the president will support.”

However, Moorhead says he is confident that the House and Senate committees can, in conference, produce a farm bill that is acceptable to Southern farmers and can be signed by the president.

Failure to pass a Senate farm bill before adjournment could mean that Senate leaders would have to start the process again in February under what is likely to be a much different budget outlook than the current scenario.

Last spring, the House and Senate passed a budget resolution allocating an additional $73.5 billion over the Congressional Budget Office's baseline for agriculture over the next 10 years.

“There is a lot of concern that if we don't get a farm bill passed this year, there won't be enough money available for farm programs,” Keenum says. “We are very pleased to tell you, though, that President Bush has said he will commit himself to the budget Congress has approved for next year, which means the president will honor that amount of money that was allocated.”

“If we aren't able to have a bill in place by the end of 2001, the money will still be available for crop assistance on the 2002 crop, making the previous argument no longer relevant,” he says.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.