2006 marked my 26th year of writing about agricultural and farm policy issues. I can’t remember the details of each, but few seem to have been as hot and dry and generally frustrating as this one.
Tom Barber, Extension cotton specialist with Mississippi State University, noted recently that much of Mississippi’s cotton-growing area received no rain from planting time in April until harvesting began in September.
Growers in northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee received ample rainfall and produced record yields. At this writing, some of the late Missouri crop was still in modules.
The fact that many farmers still picked their best crop ever, albeit an expensive one, is a testament to new varieties and improved irrigation techniques.
Corn, rice and soybean producers also had decent crops, although most growers spent far more than they had planned on irrigation. With on-farm diesel costs averaging $2.20 per gallon, some did well to break even.
Mid-South congressmen tried to pass legislation to offset crop losses to drought or high production costs. But the process became so convoluted that some who supported disaster aid voted against emergency assistance legislation.
As heated as the disaster debate became, 2006 may prove to be the calm before the storm that is likely to erupt when Congress begins writing the next farm bill.
Unlike 2001 and 2002, when the House Agriculture Committee wrote the current law, Congress is not looking at a budget surplus that could fund such tools as the then-new counter-cyclical payments.
In fact, with Congress looking at “deficits as far as the eye can see,” most observers expect farm organizations will do well to keep the safety net tools they have.
And, while most farm groups say they would prefer an extension of the 2002 law, the Bush administration has already said it wants to overhaul it. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns will begin making the administration’s case when he speaks at the National Cotton Council’s Beltwide Conferences and the American Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in January.
Johanns has told business and civic groups that Congress should revamp the farm bill because 10 percent to 20 percent of the nation’s farmers receive 70 percent to 80 percent of farm payments. We’ll see how good he is at selling that idea to farmers.
In Congress, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson will begin pointing the ag committees toward the task of writing the new legislation. With the administration gunning for farm programs, farmers may be happy to have committee chairmen who will probably be opposed to most of what Johanns proposes.
So relax and enjoy the Christmas cheer. 2007 is likely to bring a sleigh full of challenges for farmers and their organizations.