Like the Great Walenda, Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman, addressing the National Cotton Council annual meeting in Dallas, tiptoed cautiously across the treacherous high wire of the Grassley amendment to the Senate farm bill. She slid safely across without falling to either side.

All she said on the matter was: “I've heard a lot of concerns about the Grassley Amendment. A big difference exists between the House and Senate and this will be a big area for negotiations.”

She then turned to homeland security.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, was less reserved in her remarks.

“The Grassley Amendment is an absolute abomination,” she said. “It is horrible.” She said the amendment makes a bad bill even worse. “We see a lot of bad things about the Senate bill,” she said. “We'll be trying to make it better, and agricultural groups will need to explain the negative effect of this bill.”

She said payment limitations in the Grassley amendment pose a serious threat to farm stability. “And it includes a severe marriage penalty. A husband and wife farming together, with separate farms, receive considerably less than if they were not married.”

Hutchinson also noted that the Senate bill does not protect state water rights and provides limited access to loan programs. “We'll have a huge war on the water rights issue,” she said, “with the South and West against the Midwest.”

Hutchinson expects a “real knockdown, drag-out in conference. It will be as heated as the confrontation last December,” she said, “and this bill is worse than the one we had at year-end.”

She hopes most of the provisions in the House bill will prevail when conference completes its work. “If not, we'll have a major filibuster.”

Without a new farm bill, “we'll have to ask for another emergency funding program to make the 2002 crop,” said James Echols, NCC chairman.

Echols also expressed optimism that a final farm bill will improve on the Senate version. “I think sanity will prevail, and we'll get a law without significant reductions of benefits,” he said.

Veneman provided an outline of what the Bush administration wants to see in a farm bill.

“It has to be generous but affordable,” she said. “The $73.5 billion in additional baseline spending for the next decade will remain intact, as agreed by the Senate and House last year.”

She cautioned that the funds should be spread out evenly over the entire 10-year period and not “front-loaded in the early years.”

She said farm policy should include a “safety net without encouraging over-production. If the loan rate is set too high, acreage increases are more likely.

“We have to strengthen the farm economy over the long term with a market-oriented program that encourages farmer independence. The policy should not hurt producers.”

Veneman said international trade would play a huge role in the administration's program. “We export nearly 50 percent of our cotton and we'll exceed that this year. We must eliminate unfair trade practices.”

She also noted that the president “needs fast-track trade negotiation authorization.”

Good conservation practices, she said, play a significant role in the Bush program.

Hutchinson also commented on agricultural trade. “We do not have fair trade,” she said, “and without fair trade we cannot have free trade. Europe and China subsidize agricultural production, and we have to stand up to them. The key is a level playing field and it's not level.”

Echols said the strong U.S. dollar and the decline of the U.S. textile industry continue to hinder the cotton industry's recovery.

“Textiles can not be given away in trade negotiations,” he said.


e-mail: Rsmith@primediabusiness.com.