The nation's farm organizations say they oppose President's Bush's proposal to cut direct payments to crop and dairy farmers by 5 percent and limit total payments to individual producers to $250,000 a year.
But they already appear to be planning widely different strategies to derail the president's spending plans when Congress begins to write the fiscal 2006 appropriations bills.
National Cotton Council and National Corn Growers Association leaders, who supported the president during the 2004 campaign, appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach to stopping the proposed cuts. National Farmers Union and other more liberal groups are not mincing words in their criticism of the president's budget package.
Many farm-state lawmakers are also preparing to take on the White House, including some who were thought to favor stricter payment limits. One of the bigger surprises is Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Peterson, who moved up to become the No. 1 Democrat on the committee after Rep. Charles Stenholm's defeat, says cuts in payment limits will “drive the cotton and rice guys nuts” and pit commodity groups against one another.
“Everybody's going to be at each others'throats,” Peterson told reporters. “The effect will be to write a farm bill for the next three years.” He said all Democrats on the agriculture committee will be against it, and he'll work to get the entire Democratic caucus against it.
Some Republicans also indicated they did not agree with the president's proposal.
“At the midway point of the current farm bill, we are $15 billion dollars under budget,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Why make changes in our farm support programs now, with farm spending being less than estimated? U.S. farmers will only be placed in a vulnerable trade position against foreign markets if Congress is to make concessions now, before trade negotiations occur in the WTO.”
National Cotton Council Chairman Woods Eastland took pains to stress that the president's proposals will affect future and not past spending and advised NCC members to be prepared for a long struggle over the fiscal 2006 budget.
“This budget outline is just the first step in a long, important budget process,” said Eastland. “It is important to remember that this debate will be about prospective, not retrospective, program changes; and it is important that Congress evaluate its options within the context of our need to remain competitive in world markets and the impact unilateral changes can have on our position in world markets.”
The National Corn Growers Association said it was “standing fast” in its strong support of the current farm bill as the Bush administration proposed cutting $587 million in farm program spending for fiscal year 2006.
“NCGA's long-standing policy supports funding of farm programs at current levels and opposes reopening the farm bill before its expiration in 2007,” said Jon Doggett, the association's vice president of public policy. “If we start altering farm programs in the middle of the farm bill, we are going to have corn growers farming the programs and not their farms.”
Although senators from some of the nation's largest corn-producing states have said they favored tighter payment limits, the National Corn Growers Association has opposed any changes to the 2002 farm bill, including new caps on payments to individual producers.
The National Farmers Union was anything but muted in criticism as it urged Congress to reject the president's proposed cuts in agricultural spending.
“I think it is wrong for President Bush to try to balance the budget on the backs of rural Americans,” said NFU President Dave Frederickson. “Agricultural programs are not the cause of the record federal deficit and, therefore, should not be the solution.”
Frederickson said U.S. farm programs were written by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2002 with the intentions that farmers and ranchers would have an adequate safety net through 2007. During the first three years of the new farm bill, farm program spending has totaled $15 billion less than originally projected.
“If all federal program spending had have been as fiscally responsible as agricultural spending we would not be facing the highest federal budget deficit in our nation's history,” Frederickson said.
American Soybean Association leaders said they believe farm programs have already taken enough cuts in the three years since Congress passed the 2002 farm bill.
“ASA is concerned that program reductions and/or restructurings could seriously undermine many nutrition, conservation, crop insurance and farm programs that are important to all Americans,” said ASA President Neal Bredehoeft, a soybean producer from Alma, Mo. “Many of these critically important programs already have sustained budget reductions in recent years.”
Bredehoeft said the agricultural appropriations bill, for example, is the only appropriations bill to have its 302 (b) allocation reduced in both of the previous two years. These reduced resources, coupled with the need to fund hurricane and other disaster assistance, have necessitated reductions in funding for many discretionary agriculture programs, as well as reductions of $4 billion in mandatory agriculture programs.
“As another example, the nutrition of the nation's low income people is still suffering because of the budget cuts of the 1990s,” Bredehoeft said. “USDA's nutrition programs have recently been re-authorized, improving their efficiencies in providing food to the most vulnerable members of our society.”
USA Rice Producers' Group Chairman Jackie Loewer expressed disappointment over the 2006 federal budget proposals for USDA, saying they will prove burdensome to rice farmers if adopted by Congress.
“We are frustrated with provisions that will alter the terms negotiated in the 2002 farm bill,” said Loewer, a Branch, La., rice producer and USA Rice Federation Government Affairs Committee chairman. “Any modification of the terms negotiated in the 2002 farm bill should be discussed only during the reauthorization process for the 2007 farm bill.”
Loewer repeated a complaint made by a number of commodity groups following the release of the president's budget. “Our members thought they had a contract with the 2002 farm bill, and they have planned their production cycles accordingly,” Loewer said. “Changing course in midstream will wreak havoc in rice and other farm communities.”
USA Rice Federation Chairman Stuart Proctor said, “Congress still has an important say in this, and we look forward to working with Congress on these issues.”
Another group, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said it welcomed the president's “endorsement of payment limitation reform” as a means to restore equity to farm programs.
But it said it opposed the proposed 5 percent across-the-board cuts in crop and dairy farm payments and asked Congress to reject such “slash and burn” proposals. The coalition also blasted the administration's requests for conservation funding.
“We are dismayed by the president's proposal to slice $375 million from the Conservation Security Program projected funding level for 2006,” said the SAC's Ferd Hoefner. “The administration proposes to cap CSP spending at $274 million or just 42 percent of the farm bill level for 2006 as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.”
The NCC's Eastland, president of the Staplcotn producer cooperative in Greenwood, Miss., said the administration's proposals threaten the stability for U.S. agriculture that he said is vital to interests of all U.S. consumers and taxpayers.
“Our federal farm law acts as a multi-year contract upon which thousands of farm families make their business and investment decisions,” he noted. “The stability provided by the 2002 farm program, written to last through 2007, has allowed unprecedented growth in farm investment.
“Any reduction or weakening of the safety net provided by the 2002 farm law will negatively impact the security of all Americans. The American consumer could quickly find the price volatility and supply difficulties associated with our reliance on imported energy would also characterize our food and fiber markets.”
The programs embodied in the 2002 farm bill are suited to the unique challenges farmers face, said Eastland. “As noted by President Bush at the farm bill signing, ‘Farmers livelihood depends on things they cannot control. They need a farm bill that provides support and help when times are tough.’”
Eastland said the federal budget for agriculture accounts for about 0.5 percent of the entire federal budget, yet provides the underpinning for industry that is 15 percent of the nation's GDP. “Agriculture should not be singled out or asked for greater sacrifice than other federal departments.”
The Corn Growers' Doggett said his organization recognizes the importance of reducing the federal budget deficit.
“However, our stance will remain that this farm bill has worked, is working and should continue to work to provide a safety net for producers, a good deal for taxpayers, an abundant, affordable and safe food supply, and to support rural communities that support agriculture.”