Speaking before a friendly Southern audience at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., U.S. senators Blanche Lincoln and Saxby Chambliss dropped their the letter g only slightly faster than support for many of the Bush administration’s new farm bill proposals. To the Southern senators, farming was farmin’, hunting was huntin’ and U.S. agriculture policy was ascendant.

“I live in Moultrie, Ga., in Colquitt County, in the southwest part of the state,” said Sen. Chambliss, a Republican and ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “My home county is the most versatile agricultural county east of the Mississippi River. We’re big cotton, peanut and tobacco producers with some corn. We also grow about every fruit and vegetable imaginable.”

Chambliss has an even deeper connection to agriculture — his son-in-law is a produce farmer. “I’m very proud of him. He works hard and, thank goodness, he’s been successful.”

In the emotional debate during the 1996 farm bill, Chambliss recalled, “one of my friends came up to me on the floor and said, ‘Saxby, I don’t understand. You’re normally a low-key guy and don’t have a lot to say. I don’t understand why you’re so emotional about this farm bill.’

“I said, ‘Look, my son-in-law is a farmer. I know how expensive his wife is to maintain,’” said Chambliss to much laughter. “We’ve got to have good ag policy.”

Every farm bill is difficult. But in both 1996 and 2002, the United States was in different budget climates.

“In 2002, particularly, we were in surplus budget times. Today, we’re looking at the largest deficit our country has ever seen.”

Agriculture is always an easy target. “We’re criticized for giving so-called subsidies to our farmers. I never refer to them as subsidies. I look at the payments the government makes to our farmers as an investment in agriculture, an investment in food safety, an investment in national security.”

Chambliss predicted much talk on national and food security as the next farm bill is debated. And two things will have massive influence on the coming legislation: the budget and trade.

“I’m a free-trader and (Sen. Lincoln) is a free-trader. The problem we have in trade today is that U.S. trade policy is so much more liberal than that of countries in the EU or our Brazilian or Argentine friends.”

Whether it’s the regulatory process or tariffs imposed on U.S. farmers, “the playing field is simply not level. That’s why you see so much in the way of publicity on the Doha Round of the WTO. Agriculture is now the number one issue from a trade negotiation standpoint.”

It hasn’t always been that way. “It’s only in recent years we’ve seen agriculture reach the profile from a trade perspective that it ought to be. Now, it’s the issue holding up a completion of the Doha Round.”

But Chambliss insists the holdup is for the right reasons. “Our trade negotiator, Susan Schwab is doing, in my opinion, a fantastic job in negotiating on behalf of American farmers and ranchers.

“I stay in touch with her almost daily. Whatever agreement she negotiates has to be approved by Congress. Unless it’s the right kind of agreement, it simply won’t be approved.”

In early February, Chambliss traveled to Davos, Switzerland, to monitor WTO negotiations. Schwab told trade ministers the United States insists on a fair deal for U.S. agriculture.

“Schwab said, ‘Unless we have that kind of agreement, then we don’t have a deal that will pass the U.S. Congress.’ Then she looked up at me and said, ‘and there’s the guy that’ll stop it from happening.’”

Chambliss says at that, “Everyone turned to see the bad guy in the crowd. But that’s okay. I don’t mind being the bad guy when it comes to ag trade.”

Among the challenges the new farm bill faces are “critics at home and abroad, WTO obligations, ongoing trade disputes, and budget constraints,” said Sen. Lincoln, a Democrat from Helena, Ark. “Although we’re a small part of the budget, we’re routinely asked to give disproportionately for deficit reduction and to make sure budget numbers square.”

Perhaps the best selling point for U.S. farm policy “is its cost compared to the overall federal budget — one half of one percent,” said Lincoln. “What a bang for your buck! What a bargain!”

Lincoln lamented the connection between “vocal critics of U.S. farm policy in the halls of Congress” and fewer congressmen with agricultural connections.

If she represented a non-farming state, Lincoln said, “Abundant food for my family and everyone’s family would still be something I’d take pride in dedicating such a small portion of federal funds to ensure.”

And the critics of U.S. farm policy don’t stop at the water’s edge. “We must remember that,” said Lincoln. “Foreign governments, on behalf of their farm sectors and international organizations representing a variety of interests, are increasingly vocal in opposition to our support of U.S. agriculture. Their principal complaint is our farm bill distorts the world market and prevents fair competition.

“They’re right about the world agricultural market being heavily distorted. But they exaggerate the magnitude of U.S. policy contributions to those distortions. And they ignore more egregious examples that exist. Many of us bring those examples up time and again.”

Such groups overlook the fact that unilaterally dismantling U.S. farm policy “would do very little to solve what is a worldwide problem that requires a worldwide solution. In reality, the real problem is that, so far, the United States is one of the only countries with a willingness to seek a solution.”

For those wanting to close the gap in global agricultural trade, the WTO is the proper forum. That’s one of the reasons Lincoln sought a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over international trade.

“What we’ve seen in the WTO is our trading partners spending more effort in challenging our farm program rather than doing what they should: negotiating a new set of principles to bring down trade-distorting practices worldwide.

“At the negotiating table, our trade competition’s message has been clear: the United States should do away with its farm program and lower agricultural tariffs to foreign goods.

“The fact is, the U.S. market is very open to foreign ag products, perhaps more open than any other country with a strong ag base. We’re certainly more open than most.”

Lately, much has been made of the “concepts or principles” the Bush administration wants incorporated into the new farm bill, said Chambliss.

“I want you to be concerned about that. But I’ve told USDA Sec. Mike Johanns from day one that we welcome his input, but Congress is going to write the next farm bill.

“In the end, we’ve got to have a commodity title that’s very strong and that provides a safety net for farmers and ranchers so you’ll know, for the next five or six years, when times are tough, the federal government will be there with a helping hand. We’ll never guarantee you a profit, but we must have good, long-term policies that provide that safety net.

Otherwise, “it’s difficult for you to make an investment every year where you risk all your life savings, everything you’ve accumulated, in the hope you’ll have a good crop and prices will be good.”

The 2007 farm bill also promises to make strides towards energy independence through renewable fuels, said Lincoln. “Our farm bill promotes rural developments through grant programs and loans and critical research projects through land-grant colleges.

“Those two items beautifully dovetail. When you look at what we can do, at the science being developed in renewable fuels, whether you’re looking at biodiesel, at ethanol — particularly cellulosic ethanol — the opportunities are endless.

And the most logical place for renewable fuel operations to take root is in rural America, said Lincoln. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in terms of rural development. We need to support rural America so it can house the engines of the economy that will help produce that renewable fuel. That’s what makes it most economical — that we’d have the landscape of rural America dotted with all these industries that will (re-infuse) it with jobs that have left.”

Although she didn’t support it, Lincoln said Congress learned a valuable lesson from the 1996 farm bill. “When you roll the dice for the security of our farm economy and just assume high commodity prices are here to stay, that’s bad. I see the Bush administration’s proposal making the same unbelievably optimistic assumption. That’s very dangerous.”

It also concerns Lincoln that the Bush administration “acknowledges its proposals will disproportionately hit Southern producers and have a serious implication for an estimated 80,000 farmers.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com