`Stay active in agricultural policy issues' Delta Council members were urged to stay active in agricultural policy issues at the group's board of directors meeting Nov. 17 in Cleveland, Miss.

The keynote speaker at the event, Mark Keenum, chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., also questioned whether 2001 is the best time to rewrite farm policy, predicting "tremendous gridlock" in the next Congress.

"It has been a strange year, politically. Who would have believed the things we've seen. It wouldn't even make a good read for a novel because it's so unbelievable," he said, referring to the 2000 presidential election.

With a 50-50 party split expected in the Senate and a very narrow Republican majority in the House, Keenum says, "The nation is split right down the middle. I think we are going to see a delayed legislative process, because Congress is so narrowly split. I don't see Congress working well together until we get to know each other a little better."

Looking to next year's107th Congress, Keenum says, "It, like everything we have done to this point, is and will be dictated by our budget. In 1997, Congress passed the balanced budget act, and the federal surplus is expected to reach $268 billion, or $102 billion after social security protection is taken out of the figure."

Whichever candidate wins the White House has a plan with what to do with this surplus of funds and normally would have the will of the people behind him to set a mandate for this next 107th Congress. However, Keenum doesn't see either Bush or Gore having an "overwhelming mandate."

"Our president is going to be facing a pretty tremendous amount of gridlock in this Congress when he takes office," says Keenum. "Some people argue that's good, particular those in the stock market. My personal opinion is that when Congress gets so divided that it can't take action, it empowers the other two branches of government."

What will all of this anticipated gridlock mean for farm policy? In recent history, Congress has responded to the depressed agricultural economy with additional economic assistance for farmers. How agriculture fares in the 107th Congress may depend, Keenum says, on whether the farm bill rewrite begins in 2001 or 2002.

"There's a lot of criticism about our current farm bill, and it's motivating members of Congress to say the time is now to rewrite this farm bill," Keenum says. "They don't want to wait until 2002 when the program expires."

Keenum says he would argue this farm bill has nothing to do with the dire economic situation in farming. "The United States exports one-third of all the agricultural products we produce. In 1996, we had record exports worth $60 billion. That was the first year of this farm bill and farm prices were pretty good that year. Since then, we've seen our export sales decline by 20 percent. When you have a big portion of your market decline by one-fifth, that's obviously going to have an effect on commodity prices."

While farmers today enjoy choosing what to plant on how many acres, they are having to rely on the government for about 50 percent of their net farm income, according to Keenum. In fact, he says, in fiscal 2000, direct payments to farmers reached $28 billion.

"We've got some members of Congress who don't like this idea, and they are being very vocal, saying we only need one $30,000 or $40,000 payment to farmers. They argue that nationwide the average farmer only receives about $17,000 annually in farm support. As a result, they question government policies allowing farmers to receive $75,000 or $150,000 in assistance because these payments, they say, only benefit a very small group of farmers at the expense of all taxpayers."

Keenum's opinion is that although 80 percent of farm payments go to about 20 percent of farmers, this 20 percent produces 80 percent of our output.

Again though, some members of Congress believe the government should only be helping "small family farms," and not "large corporate farms." They also believe that farms with $50,000 or more in annual sales do not need government support, he says.

Going into this renewed debate over farm policy, Keenum says, farmers should keep in mind that the major commodities receiving the bulk of these payments account for only about 20 percent of the total cash receipts for all agricultural production. "You are going to have other commodities that are going to be demanding they be included in the next farm bill, and the pie of government support may get split into more pieces.

"Personally, I would hope that whatever we decide to do, we at a minimum preserve our basic baseline support we've been putting out over the past two years."

That baseline, according to Keenum, includes current farm bill payments, loan deficiency payments and the economic assistance payments made to farmers during the past two years. "We need to capture that as our baseline and not accept anything less in the next farm bill," he says.

Keenum is not forecasting any major changes in the House or Senate agricultural committees as a result of this year's election. However, with a 50-50 split expected in the Senate, he anticipates an increase in party line votes which will make it more difficult for legislation to emerge from congressional committees.

In the Senate, the pro-market oriented Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., will likely continue as chairman of the agricultural committee. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, as the ranking Democrat, is expected to push his belief that government farm support should be targeted only to small family farms, Keenum says.

In the House, two Texans are leading the Agricultural Committee. Keenum says, Rep. Larry Combest, as chairman, is in favor of combining government assistance with crop insurance measures. In comparison, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, the ranking Democrat, "passionately" wants to rewrite the farm bill, including a supplemental income program for farmers based on a five-year running income average.

"Next year may not be the best environment in which to write a comprehensive new farm bill," he says. "It's my opinion, that when it comes to writing farm policy, farmers tend to fare better in even-numbered election years."

MARKETING TOOLS available to cotton producers continue to evolve. Thus, a group of merchants and cooperative officials will talk about those trends and what forces are bringing about those changes during 2001 Beltwide Cotton Production Conference, Jan. 10-11, in Anaheim, Calif.

Moderated by Texas cotton producer William Lovelady, the panel will offer cotton producers guidance on various marketing alternatives by evaluating and comparing current marketing tools and opportunities and sharing what changes will occur in the next few years, said NCC's Anne Wrona, who serves as program coordinator.

Panelists include: Bruce Groefsema and Ernst Schroeder, Bakersfield, Calif.; Edward Price, Kinston, N.C.; Robert Weil II, Montgomery, Ala.; and John Mitchell, Memphis, Tenn. Dan Logan Jr., Gilliam, La., will offer a grower's perspective.

For more information about Beltwide Cotton Conferences, Jan. 9-13, Anaheim, Calif., visit www.cotton.org/beltwide.