Facing an overflow crowd in Little Rock’s Alltel Arena on Monday (May 24) afternoon, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns was received warmly by Arkansas farmers and businessmen. However, despite an ample dose of southern hospitality, Johanns – who repeatedly insisted President Bush was right to cut agriculture spending in the face of record federal deficits – still faced a series of hard, direct questions and comments.

Even the secretary’s host, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, frequently poked at him between attendees’ queries. “Farmers are willing to do their part in addressing the financial burden of the nation,” she said. “But I also know they don’t deserve to carry a disproportionate part of that burden.”

In his proposed 2006 budget, President Bush has called for $587 million (some 5 percent) worth of cuts in agriculture programs. To achieve this, subsidies would be capped at $250,000 per farmer and the three entity rule done away with. Johanns, harkening back to his days of balancing budgets as Nebraska governor, said agriculture would suffer even more if the deficit is left to fester.

Unimpressed, Bill Bristow, a Jonesboro, Ark., attorney, took the microphone and, to large applause, lectured Johanns on the “unintended consequences” of the cuts on southern agriculture. If proposed payment limitations on farmers are approved, “You’re talking about totally wrecking operations … It will devastate land prices and the rural economy. Most of the banks will fail. You’re trying to save money by skimping a few dollars from payment limitations. But the devastation you will reap in the South will be many, many times more expensive -- there’s just no understanding of the realities of unintended consequences.”

In response, Johanns said, “In the next 10 months, I’ll be traveling all over the country to hear input on the new farm bill, which comes up for reauthorization in 2007 ... (Such comments) are the very thing we want to hear about.”

Addressing a group of teenage Future Farmers of America (FFA) members, Johanns said a focus for the next farm bill must be about retaining or recruiting young farmers. “I look across this room and it’s what I saw in Nebraska. Most farmers – 60 to 65 percent – are my age or older. I think the average age of a farmer is 57.”

The biggest applause of the evening came at the very end of the meeting when Harvey Joe Sanner, farmer and advocate from Des Arc, Ark., spoke on Johanns’ defense of proposed program cuts. “First of all, and I can’t say this strongly enough: You’re just wrong … The only way to keep producing for export markets (while selling for under the cost of production) is to have the safety net the farm bill provides. And now you’re talking about taking the guts out of it.”

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