Why did the farm bill debate inexplicably degenerate into a Civil War, new-millennium style? Bruce Scherr, president and chief executive officer, Sparks Companies, Memphis, blames the North/South battle lines that were drawn during the heat of the debate on Congress and USDA.
“What the debate has been about is disgruntlement with the FAIR Act,” he said. “And I think a lot of it has been misdirected — the issues are about distribution to the larger players versus the smaller players, regional distribution and commodity distribution.
In addition, the farm bill debate “has lacked creativity on the part of Congress and the Department of Agriculture,” Scherr said.
“The farm bill is a business plan. If you're going to do a business plan, first you design goals, then the strategies on how to get there. All we've done in this debate is attack the means. I don't think there's been a very good discussion about the goals.”
Scherr believers that Congress eventually will come to its senses on farm policy, though it may be later rather than sooner. Scherr spoke at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis.
“It is highly unpredictable what is going to happen with this farm bill,” he stressed. “But I don't think we'll get one between now and the Easter recess. I just think there's too much stuff to deal with. If it were Democrats and Republicans, it might have been workable. I think we would have gotten a House-style bill.”
Scherr says if there's no farm bill by Easter, Congress will immediately turn its attention to an emergency assistance package for the 2002 crop. “It will look very much like what we've had in the last year or two. It will provide $7.52 billion in additional spending, and it will free you up for another year.”
In that case, the farm bill debate would carry on for another year, “which certain parties wanted the whole time,” he said.
“Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., didn't want to do a farm bill this year. He wanted to wait for the mid-term elections. Now it's possible that the debate could conceivably continue until the next crop year.”
While another year of farm bill debate may be more than most farmers can bear, Scherr doesn't believe the U.S. farmer will be abandoned by Congress or the Bush administration. His view was the most optimistic offered by speakers at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show. The prevailing opinion was that work on a farm bill has to be completed quickly to insure a favorable outcome for agriculture.
“The money is not running away,” Scherr said, “even if this economy continues to slow down. The commitment to make payments to producers over a five-year period is settled in both the Senate and the House and the administration.”
Scherr said it doesn't make political sense for Congress to remove the payment system that has supported American agriculture for years. “Number one, if the farmers in this country at best get 60 to 70 percent of their income from the marketplace, it doesn't make sense to pull the rug out from under them on the remaining 30 to 40 percent of their income.”
It is also economically inexpedient to do so. “If we spend $25 billion per year on American agriculture to build a foundation and support mechanism, it's nothing compared to the $9.7 trillion U.S. economy — $25 billion is a spit in the ocean.
“Moreover, if you pull the plug out of the center of the country in rural America, you're going to set up a ripple effect that nobody on either side of the aisle is insensible enough to deal with.”
Such a ripple would “start to break down the fabric of the rural community, shut down the stores, create unemployment in the rural communities and shut down the institutions of the rural communities. You basically implode rural society, not agriculture, but rural society.”
The impacts wouldn't stop there, according to Scherr. “It could spin the U.S. economy into a deep recessionary mode. You build manufacturing and service sector growth on your ability to do the basics productively and efficiently. That's U.S. agriculture.”
Scherr added that Southern agriculture will rest a lot easier “when this payment limitation thing goes away. But when it is all said and done, there will be an emergency package for this year and it will look a whole lot like the House bill.”