Occasionally, at a conference, there'll be a speaker whose message doesn't need much editing or rewriting. Such were comments Arkansas producer/ginner Allan Helms made in a panel discussion on the farm bill at the recent Southern Crop Production Association conference.
“I've had a partner in my farming business — one I certainly didn't want, but one I've depended on greatly. Without this partner, I would've been showing red ink for the past five years or more.
“We in farming are fiercely independent by nature; we'd rather not have this partner. Nonetheless, farm legislation has made the government our partner, and government payments accounted for 30 percent to 50 percent of my gross income during that period.
“Farm programs have always shaped the environment in which I've farmed: How will I structure my operation? Will I do better in a partnership corporation or as a sole proprietor? How far out can I make plans? How big do I want to be? How much can I pay to rent a neighbor's farm? Which crops should I grow?
“The list is long, and the answers to many of these questions have been based more on the farm program than on good, sound economics.
“But the current farm bill, I think, is working for me — as I believe it is for most of the farmers across the nation. It gives us some things we like: no acreage controls, which allows the flexibility to plant what we want and as much as we want, and a safety net, which was so badly needed.
“It was becoming increasingly obvious we couldn't keep going back to Congress every year and asking for supplemental money; this legislation eliminates the need for that. We also maintain the marketing loan program, which allows us to clear some burdensome supplies onto the world market.
“Much of the farm program is now decoupled, with payments tied to historical data, which makes decisions much more responsive to the economics of the marketplace.
“These things give us a chance to succeed, as long as we have favorable factors such as market price, weather, etc.
“Where do we go from here? I think we can expect continued attacks on this farm bill, specifically in the area of payment limits. There has been a very well-orchestrated, very well-run campaign to influence public opinion for lower payment limits. The Environmental Working Group has this high on their agenda, and they've been very successful in not only influencing public opinion, but quite a few members of Congress. Every time there's an appropriations bill, or we go through the budget process, there's a chance that this will be attacked.
“Equally disturbing, we in agriculture no longer have the good, solid front that we had for decades. Some major farm and commodity organizations are not necessarily on the same page on key issues. Some don't even want to take a stand. It's disturbing to see Midwest congressmen, from key agricultural states, attacking certain areas of the farm bill — something that would've been unheard of a number of years ago.
“This lack of a solid front will continue to be a challenge for agriculture.”