Farm bill retains support
Farmers and politicians meeting Sunday in Fargo made their message clear about the 2002 federal farm bill: If it's not broken, don't fix it. However, if Congress does make changes to the bill when it expires in 2007, they should include programs ...
Farmers and politicians meeting Sunday in Fargo made their message clear about the 2002 federal farm bill: If it's not broken, don't fix it.
However, if Congress does make changes to the bill when it expires in 2007, they should include programs to promote renewable energy such as ethanol and biodiesel, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
Conrad, former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest and state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson talked about the challenges and opportunities facing the next farm bill before about 200 people at the Fargodome.
The panel discussion kicked off a two-day conference sponsored by Conrad and the Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies at North Dakota State University.
Combest, a Texas Republican who served in the House from 1985 to 2003 and was chief architect of the 2002 farm bill, said he would like to see it continued.
"I don't think I've ever seen a farm bill go this long that has continued to have this much support and that there's not been a cry to reopen or start making changes with it," he said.
However, the political climate has changed since the bill was passed, Conrad said.
Energy prices are up, and leaders in Congress don't share the strong farm interests of Combest or former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, he said.
The nation also faces a $319 billion budget deficit, compared with a $128 billion surplus in 2001, said Conrad, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee. The national debt increased by $551 billion this year and is anticipated to grow by $600 billion next year, he said.
"I believe this ocean of red ink is going to have a profound impact on the discussion of agricultural policy in the next farm bill," he said.
Randy Richards, who farms near Hope, N.D., and was representing North Dakota Farmers Union, said he supports the current farm bill. He drew applause when he suggested that instead of waiting for budget cuts, farmers should go on the offensive and ask for more money for energy, crop insurance and other programs, he said.
"With the climate that it is, with terrorism, with the food safety and security act, with the prices of fuel now, if we can't sell that to the American people now, we never will," he said.
Conrad said he believes trade negotiations are the biggest threat to continuing the current farm program.
He and Combest both criticized an offer made earlier this month by the Bush administration to reduce trade-distorting subsidies to U.S. farmers by 60 percent in an effort to get the European Union and Japan to lower their subsidies, as well.
"I feel that basically it's unilateral disarmament of some policies in order to try to appease some of our trading partners around the world," he said.
Energy emerged Sunday as a top issue on the minds of farmers.
Fairdale, N.D., farmer Ed Loraas said he could fill up his 9,200-gallon fuel tank for about $6,700 three years ago. Now, it costs $22,000 to $24,000.
"That's almost impossible to deal with," Loraas said, adding, "We have to become somewhat energy self-sufficient in this country."
Conrad agreed, noting that in the past 15 years, Brazil has reduced its dependence on foreign oil from 80 percent to 10 percent by promoting soy-based biodiesel, corn-based ethanol and vehicles that burn multiple fuels.
"We need to look more to the middle west and less to the Middle East for our nation's energy," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528