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A refreshing, realistic look at the farm bill
Media sources claim that lawmakers, policy analysts, university economists and special interest groups are hard at work studying, analyzing, proposing and pontificating on the 2007 Farm Bill. The reality, however, is much different. While the farm bill is getting a lot of ink and airtime, in reality very little is being done. That was the honest and refreshing assessment of Allan Gray, agricultural economist at Purdue.

Recently a group of several hundred farmers gathered at the Hamilton Country Fairgrounds in Noblesville, Ind. to discuss the weighty issues of the farm bill. What they got from the presentation by Gray was a slightly irreverent perspective on the policies, the process, and the prospects for a new farm bill. He started by telling the crowd nobody in Washington was seriously working on the legislation.

While congressional committees are holding hearings and the USDA is issuing analytical treatises, there is no real work being done on crafting the legislation that will guide U.S. policy for the next half decade. This is because of the upcoming November elections.

This election has the potential to shift the balance of political power in the House and Senate and may change the key players who will control the farm bill process. With a short history lesson, Gray showed how shifts in the Ag Committee chairs had a dramatic influence on the issues that became the core of previous Farm Bills. Until the political landscape is settled next January, little if any serious work will be done in Washington on the Farm Bill.

Trade will be another big factor in the 2007 Farm Bill. According to Dr. Gray, if the WTO failed to reach an agreement on reforming world agriculture trade, we may not have a new farm bill at all. He suggests that without an agreement requiring a shift in U.S. farm policy there will simply be an extension of the current program. “I just don’t see a lot of people that are dissatisfied with the current program to mandate a change,” Gray said. He postulated a scenario that had Congress passing a simple extension of the farm bill and Fast Track Trade Authority until the WTO got around to doing something.

Gray raised more than a few eyebrows when he stated that federal budget deficits would not have an impact on the farm bill. He noted that since 1965 only two farm bills have been written in years of budget surpluses: 1970 and 2002.

“No matter if the ‘tax and spend’ Democrats or the ‘borrow and spend’ Republicans are in power, we still find ways to spend money on farm programs,” Gray said. “Lawmakers will spend money if they believe there is a problem, no matter if the problem is real or just perceived to be.”

Yet it was when Gray started talking about farm subsidies that folks began to squirm in their seats. With the cold hard economic facts on the screen, Gray painted a disturbing picture of just who benefits and who does not benefit from current farm subsidy programs. Gray challenged the group to face the tough questions and begin to search for solutions. “We can be the ones to engage in this discussion or we can let the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do it,” he said.

Gray’s perspective was refreshing, not only for its candor, but also for its practicality. He reminded the producers that the crop we just planted will not be affected by the next farm bill and that the crop we will plant next year will not be affected by the new farm bill. He also noted that changes in U.S. farm policy tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Thus, predictions of sweeping changes in the 2007 farm bill may be exaggerated.

In fact, much of the farm bill rhetoric being bantered about today is exaggerated.

This farm news was published in the July 5, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.