The new farm bill is moving through Congress and House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson is eager to put the process to bed. Following a June 14 meeting with USDA head Mike Johanns, the Minnesota Democrat said crafting a new farm bill is proving difficult, but the committee wouldn’t shirk its responsibility.

Speaking the week before the next farm bill draft and mark-up was presented June 19, Peterson cautioned against assuming it is a completed document.

“I want folks to know this isn’t everything — there will be additional changes in the commodity title that’ll be in the chairman’s mark that I’ll put out (June 26) when the full committee mark-up will start.”

He also warned agricultural interests that there is more scrutiny of the farm bill this time around. “Some of you in Washington have picked up, there is, finally, more interest in this from the leadership level. In our caucus there is a lot of discussion currently talking about offsets for reserve funds and how all this is going to fit together… We are identifying some areas that will be offset. All that hasn’t been nailed down.”

Peterson isn’t optimistic that the next farm bill will please everyone.

“I think it’s fair to say what we’re doing here isn’t making anyone happy. But, given the money situation, at the end of the day I wouldn’t expect (otherwise). As I’ve said before: perhaps my job is making everyone equally unhappy.

“There are a few voices out there trying to put their ideology into the farm programs. But we’ve been down that road before with Freedom to Farm. Most of us aren’t interested into going down that road again.”

Among Peterson’s other comments:

On offsets for the nutrition title, the lack of specifics and the pace of the new farm legislation…

“We had a meeting (June 13) — all the (House ag) committee members and the committee members of Ways and Means — discussing the issue of the lack of offsets in some farm bill areas. Some focus was on the nutrition part of the farm bill… The feeling of our committee is this is something that’s more general in the farm bill and should be offset on a broader basis than just taking it out of the current baseline.

“As I said, there were some discussions with senior leadership. We’re getting closer on the rest of the items in the farm bill. But I don’t think it’s useful at this point to talk about specifics other than to say we’re closing the gaps. We have heard complaints from the minority members and we aren’t discounting them. We’re working through it as best we can.

“One of the problems with this no matter when (it occurs), is until there’s actually a mark-up and place for people to start, nothing gets done. There’s a lot of talking and everyone moves around. But until people start making decisions, nothing happens…

“My judgment is if we did this a month from now, we probably wouldn’t be any farther along than we are now. And three or four days before the mark-up is when things start getting resolved.”

On direct payments…

“We do intend to pass a farm bill that’s legal within our WTO commitments. Given the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) score and what’s projected by the major groups looking at this, we believe … we’ll be within WTO limits.

“Given the fact that there’s an unwillingness in the agricultural community to change the planting prohibition, even the direct payments are in question if you want to get down to that level. So, we’re proceeding based on projections and will have a farm bill that fits within WTO requirements.

“If there’s a miracle and there’s a Doha agreement, or something else happens, we’ll deal with it when it comes up. But the (House Agriculture) Committee isn’t of the mind — and the American farmers aren’t of the mind — to make unilateral changes without knowing what kind of deal there might potentially be. What’s come from Doha so far, they aren’t particularly excited about.”

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., recently introduced a bill that would exchange direct agriculture payments with “income stabilization accounts” that farmers could access during disasters. Backers of Kind claim over the course of a decade, his idea could save $55 billion. Peterson’s reaction?

“We’ve worked very hard with all members of the caucus to fashion a bill that takes care of concerns with conservation, with fruits and vegetables, with nutrition and renewable energy. I don’t think there’s been a staff or chairman that has tried to work with all the different groups as we have.

“There are people out there with their own agendas, whatever they’re up to trying to whip up the idea they have support. We don’t see much of that, frankly.

“And we’ll see on (June 19) because we’re going to bring up Kind’s bill and we’re going to discuss it and we’re going to vote on it… And we’ll see how much support there is. (Johann’s) bill will probably also be discussed and voted on…

“I’m not precluding anyone from doing anything. But I think … it should be talked about in the (House Agriculture) Committee. We’re the ones with the responsibility; we’re the ones that work with it every day.

“So if there’s any kind of attempt to bring an amendment to the floor — whether (Johanns’) bill, or whatever — it just makes good sense to have the committee discuss it. And we’re going to do that. Hopefully, that’ll help make clear where people are at with this and how work is left.”

On the recent Oxfam report claiming U.S. subsidies impact West African cotton-farmers’ incomes…

“Cotton came up with (Johanns) today. He’s concerned about this.

“In the context of folks that want reform in the commodity title, this is the issue that comes up the most. From people that know what this is all about and understand the nuances of agriculture, cotton is the thing that comes up. And we’ll be dealing with cotton in the commodity title, changes will be proposed.

“We’ve talked to (Oxfam) and I think some of their concerns are misguided. The farmers in West Africa have a much bigger problem with their governments and the way their systems are set up than they have with us. They have a system there where the farmer has to buy the inputs and can only sell to one person. The government can actually take 40 percent of the money. That’s a much bigger problem than any U.S. cotton program has on the situation.

“Oxfam has an agenda and has a right to do what they’re doing. I’ve talked to them and some of their concerns might be valid. But some, in my opinion, are without substance. I don’t know the exact, underlying reason is, but there’s some agenda there.”

On claims that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, would like to see lowering the limit on EQIP as opposed to conservation…

“That’s another deal that probably got blown out of proportion.

“All I’m saying is we’re looking at payment limits in all regards.

“This is something I spoke about with (Johanns) today. The (USDA) also looked at payment limits. He told me they had long discussions about … the payment limits should be harmonized across everything. In the end, they decided not to propose that.

“But we’re looking at whether it makes sense to harmonize these payment limits across all commodities and conservation programs. There are already limits on CRP — $50,000. There are limits on other conservation programs and others with no limits. Does that make any sense?

“If payment limits are a good idea, I think it should probably be across the board. I think it’s safe to say there will be reforms of payment limits in our bill. This isn’t something I’ve wanted to do but I think the handwriting is on the wall…

“Everyone has come to the conclusion this is something that must be dealt with. It isn’t sustainable to go to the floor without some changes in the payment limits.”

On cutting direct payments and, if done, where the money might go…

“We’re looking at direct payments… Obviously, Sen. Harkin has talked about this and we have members of the committee that have talked about it. Final decisions haven’t been made.

“But you saw what happened with peanuts. A change was made there in payment limits in the initial subcommittee.”

On worries that the proposed permanent disaster title could be a potential pot of money for other programs to raid…

“That is a concern and is something we’ve wrestled with for the last three or four weeks. In the last couple of days, I’ve gone through several drafts of the language trying to accomplish what I’ve been talking about.

“To be honest, what I’m getting back is more complicated than I’d like.

“With the money situation being what it is, there’s a good possibility … whatever is done with the permanent disaster area may end up being a pilot program. It may be tested out in a few states before going nationwide.

“Part of that is an overall money issue. And part is the concern that if we allocate that much to mandatory spending and it isn’t accessed, it’ll be (raided).

“I think the likelihood of having a full-blown, permanent disaster (program) nationwide is fading. That’s the reality of the budget situation.”

More on direct payment cuts…

“There will be some rebalancing — that much I can tell you. There will be some loan rates and target prices that will rise and some that will drop.

“In terms of the disaster (program), nothing has been settled. We’re looking at (the USDA’s program) — I think their nationwide program was $390 million.”

Is Peterson considering the Bush administration’s idea of lowering the adjusted gross income level?

“That’s under consideration. But it wouldn’t be close to $200,000.

“There’s been talk about trying to take another stab at having direct payments go to those actually producing something. We’re also looking at the overall limits and how much is within the different payments.”

On the slower pace of the Senate committee…

“The (House Agriculture Committee) is going to get our work down. I can’t guarantee anything beyond that.

“I spoke with Sen. Harkin a few days ago and he said it didn’t look like (the Senate Agriculture Committee) would get to mark-up in June. I believe the immigration issue has them tied up.

“I spoke with (Georgia Republican) Sen. Saxby Chambliss the night before last. His assessment was the mark-up wouldn’t come until July. If that’s the case, I don’t see how they’ll get it off the Senate floor before the August recess.”

On large farm payments becoming harder to defend…

“It’s hard to explain to people. No question about that…

“We’re trying to keep as much peace in the family as possible. But this issue has interest outside the (House) Agriculture Committee just like it does inside it. People have enthusiasm for this.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com