The federal deficit, counter-cyclical paybacks and proposed cuts to the USDA's budget are only some the reasons Rep. Marion Berry has been holding a series of meetings across Arkansas' First Congressional District. The meetings have been well-attended, something the Democrat attributes to consternation amongst farming constituents.

“There's a lot of concern about President Bush's budget recommendations and the payback on rice counter-cyclicals from 2003,” said Berry. “That payback was a colossal foul-up on the part of the USDA.”

Berry's district was impacted “dramatically. So we've met with as many farmers as we can to try, as best we can, to let them know what's going on. We want to hold down as much speculation and panic as possible.”

Berry hasn't escaped worry from the agriculture community on weekends. The Jonesboro, Ark.,-area resident has been hearing from farming relatives, too.

“They're all concerned. Input costs are through the roof — we've never paid so much for diesel fuel — and fertilizer prices are reaching record levels. There are major issues to deal with.”

President Bush's 2006 budget proposes to cut farm programs $587 million. If passed, crop and dairy subsidies will drop by 5 percent and individual farmers will be restricted to $250,000 in subsidies.

The cuts, Berry told those attending a meeting in Lonoke, Ark., are being driven by the federal deficit. But the deficit numbers cited in the budget proposal aren't the whole story. Berry said that while projected at $427 billion this year (a record high), the actual deficit is much higher.

“The cost for the Iraq war isn't included. The cost of the Medicare drug benefit isn't either. The real deficit is close to $700 billion.”

While admitting agriculture must “make contributions” to deficit reduction, Berry said such a contribution shouldn't be the proposed 5 percent cut. He suggested cuts of “perhaps 2 or 3 percent” would be more palatable. “I feel we may end up with some type of… reduction that will be across the board and marginal — nothing as drastic as what was recommended.”

Berry warned that others in the Republican Party want more drastic cuts. In fact, “many groups in power are pushing to ‘starve the beast.’ Their stated objective is to do away with all government programs, period.”

Berry won't be surprised if the proposed agriculture cuts stay in the budget. “I will be surprised if anyone pays any attention to them,” he said in a follow-up interview after returning to Washington, D.C. “It's my expectation we'll disregard that and appropriate the money for the USDA in the way we've done in the past.

“I haven't seen such a strong unification of the ag community since I came here. Usually, you'll find a couple of organizations or commodity groups that find themselves outside the circle of consensus. But that isn't the way it is this go-round. We've got a lot of support from both sides of the aisle not to mess with the farm bill. All the information we have indicates there isn't any support for what President Bush asked for in his budget.”

Berry is watching the WTO decision on U.S. cotton subsidies. He derides the thought process of those who filed the complaint.

“Quite honestly, I could care less what the WTO has to say about our cotton program… The WTO hasn't got anything to talk about until everyone's subsidies are put on the table and we start talking equalization.”

Responding to reports that Brazil has already drafted a WTO challenge to U.S. soybean subsidies and will soon file it, Berry said he would be “surprised if they don't have a draft. Brazil and other countries may think they want this, but they don't know two things.

“First, I don't believe the Bush administration would sell out the American farmer — and especially the Mid-South — just because the WTO rules. We haven't ever used our real clout in this arena. If these countries ever push us far enough to where we do (use our clout), they'll have created a monster they really don't want.

“Second, they don't understand that farm programs actually inhibit U.S. farmers' productivity. If the productivity, ingenuity and industriousness of the American farmer are ever turned completely loose, the world won't be able to keep up. They don't realize how productive we could be without complying with farm programs.”

As President Bush doesn't have to face re-election, does Berry believe there's a chance he'll buck Florida's Cuban-American community and open up trade with Cuba? The short answer: no.

“They're not about to mess with Cuba. In fact, just last week they made it more difficult to do business there. That south Florida situation has actually elected the president the last two times, and they aren't going to mess with it. I think it's a shame that they get such preferential treatment while the Mid-South farmer gets stabbed in the back. That's the way it is, though.”


dbennett@primediabusiness.com