“We ought to leave the farm bill alone,” Sen. Thad Cochran, who played a key role in drafting the legislation, told those attending the annual Conservation Tillage Cotton and Rice Conference at Robinsonville, Miss.

“It's as good as we could write it, and I don't think we should make any major changes in it.”

The Mississippi Republican, chairman of the Agriculture Committee and in line for chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee, says he will “push for continued support” from the Bush Administration to “carry out all provisions of the bill.”

Farmers are to the point, Cochran says, that they are understanding the opportunities and limitations of the bill. If Congress “starts making indiscriminate changes, such as payment limitations, we're going to create more uncertainty, more confusion, and make it less likely that we'll be viewed as a dependable supplier of agricultural commodities around the world.”

Overall, Cochran says, the financial condition of agriculture “has improved significantly since we enacted the bill — and though it's not all due to the legislation, it certainly has helped.”

At a recent hearing on the economic outlook for production agriculture, he noted, “We were told that net cash farm income for 2003 will reach $65.1 billion, up 33 percent from the previous year, and 15 percent above the average net cash income level of the previous 10 years.”

The total market value of agricultural production, excluding government payments, is expected to be up by $223 billion, a 10 percent increase from 2002. “For most agricultural commodities, the USDA is projecting greater production levels and higher market prices, and that's good news,” Cochran said.

Agricultural exports hit $56.2 billion for fiscal 2003, a 5 percent increase over the previous year and the best performance since 1997, he said. The USDA is projecting a 6 percent increase in fiscal 2004, to $59.5 billion.

In a question-and-answer session, Cochran was asked if he feels his colleague, Sen. Richard Lugar, R.-Ind., will actively press for changes to the farm bill, particularly with respect to payment limitations.

“He has always had an open mind on issues and actually has not been as aggressive as others with respect to payment limitations. I don't think he's going to do anything personally to try and change the content of the farm bill. He accepts the will of the Senate and the decision made by Congress, and I don't think he's going to resist the fair implementation of this bill.”

But, Cochran noted, “There are others who are more likely to offer amendments on the floor to change payment limits.”

Asked about budget deficit projections of $500 billion annually and the potential for Congress to enact deficit reduction legislation that would have an adverse impact on farm programs, the senator said he called a meeting of his committee to solicit suggestions for program cuts to achieve savings.

“Nobody made any recommendations. I don't think there are going to be any changes to reduce farm spending… or to reduce any of the authorized funds that would be paid out under the farm bill.”

The even Senate split between Republicans and Democrats “makes it hard for one party to run roughshod over things,” Cochran said. “Unless there's a consensus between leaders of both parties in the Senate, and support by the administration, there isn't likely to be any dramatic change from current policy.

“We're seeing a growing economy, which is helping to reduce the deficit… I don't think anyone is predicting gloom and doom because of the large deficits. Granted, they are a potential problem, but we have the strongest capacity of any nation in the world to deal effectively with deficits….

“As long as we continue to see growth, interest rates that are moderate, an inflation rate that's modest, these deficits aren't a threat to the health of our economy.”

There are many reasons, Cochran said, to be optimistic about agriculture's future and America's interests in general.

“We're not only the most productive agricultural nation, we're the most efficient producer of goods and services in the entire world. We have the strongest economy in the world. We have access to more credit for individual businesses and agricultural producers than any other country in the world.

“The benefits we enjoy in this environment, with a modified tax policy that encourages investment in savings and growth of our economy, makes our future look bright.”

The U.S. economy has shown very strong signs of recovery, Cochran says, “and the agricultural economy is sharing in the rebound.”

Several hundred farmers, researchers, and agribusiness leaders participated in the conference.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com