Reports of the demise of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman as a “player” in the 2002 farm bill may have been greatly exaggerated. A few weeks back, a Washington-based pundit, writing about the naming of Charles Connor and Hunt Shipman as the Bush administration's point men on the farm bill, noted that the press release made no mention of Veneman's role in the process.

But no sooner had the ink dried than Veneman began what has become a series of stump speeches on the administration's priorities for the new farm bill, including an endorsement of just about all the provisions of the House-passed bill.

You couldn't fault the pundit's observation given Veneman's lack of participation in the early stages of the farm bill. Aside from releasing its report, Food and Agricultural Policy: Taking Stock for the New Century, in late September, USDA had little to say about the legislation.

By then, the House Agriculture Committee had written and passed its farm bill with the House following suit a few days later. The Senate Agriculture Committee, meanwhile, was just cranking up its farm bill process after downplaying the need for new legislation.

After several false starts — USDA backed Sen. Richard Lugar's failed proposal and then the Cochran-Roberts amendment — Veneman began assuming a higher farm bill profile when Senate Democrats passed their farm bill Feb. 13.

“Passage and then implementation of the next farm bill is our top priority in the Department of Agriculture,” she told a meeting of the Chicago Farmers group in late March.

“We continue to have a concern about the potential front-loading of the bill,” she said. “The Senate bill front loads its 10-year funding into the first five years, placing many programs at risk in the second five years. In fact, as many as 15 programs would be zeroed out or significantly reduced in the second five years.”

The Bush administration, she said, supports the loan rates outlined in the House — passed version of the farm bill. “They are more market-oriented and wouldn't further depress prices and spur overproduction.

“As for the rest of the farm bill, the administration supports the House bill's increased funding for fixed, decoupled payments. We feel they would insure farmers a consistent, predictable income safety net while maintaining market-oriented planting flexibility. In contrast, the Senate bill reduces such payments.”

Veneman has not taken a position on the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment, but her comments have sounded like the administration prefers the House payment limit language. “You know people talk about this issue as if there are payment limits or no payment limits,” she said. “And the fact is we have payment limits in the House bill, we have payment limits in current law — there is just a more restrictive payment limit in the Senate bill.

“So I think the conference ultimately will come out with a compromise that is somewhere in between.”

Such comments won't sit well with Senators Grassley and Dorgan who may have expected administration support given the language in USDA's Food and Agricultural Policy statement. But Sun Belt farmers still trying to figure out whether they can farm in 2002 will cheer them.