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Why the FFA should write the next federal farm bill
One of my favorite musicals is 1776. It is a satirical and slightly off-color portrayal of the birth of our nation. One of my favorite acts is when John Adams is trying to talk someone into writing the Declaration of Independence. He approaches several of our famous founding fathers all of whom turn him down with plausible excuses.

The excuse Thomas Jefferson gave was that he had not seen his wife for months and wanted to go home and have marital relations. To which Adams retorts, “Are you a patriot or a lover?” Jefferson replies, “A lover,” but agrees to write the draft of the declaration. A similar, although less entertaining, battle is developing over who should write the next farm bill.

Last year the Secretary of Agriculture and his top officials went all over the U.S. holding forums about what should be in the next farm bill. From these hours of public testimony, they are drafting positions that they feel should be the basis of the new farm bill. Over the past 18 months, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) took input from farmers on what they wanted in the way of new farm policy. Currently Congress is holding hearings around the country taking yet more input of what should be in the farm bill. All of this input can be lumped into three main areas.

Those are toss out the old and start over with something completely new; modify the old to fit the new WTO rules and political realities; and keep the status quo until we can figure out what to do. Last week all three of these areas converged on the farm news page to cause a bewildering mass of proposals, plans, programs, pundits and pomposity. What this maelstrom failed to produce is any progress on writing a new farm bill.

AFT gets my vote for having some of the most fresh and original ideas on U.S. farm policy. Their approach is practical, their precepts are sound and represent a new direction, not based on the past but shaped by the global and economic realities of the future. In short, their approach takes the government out of farming, which is why Congress will never pass any of their ideas.

The policy papers being released by USDA have the look of Wal-Mart about them. They are big programs with “always” low prices. Under the directive of the Office of Management and Budget to cut spending on farm programs, the USDA is pulling out all the creative stops to maintain the effectiveness and integrity of farm programs while lowering the cost.

Meanwhile at congressional field hearings on the farm bill, both Republicans and Democrats are taking potshots at the White House. The lawmakers are feeling the pressure of farm group lobbyists who want the generous funding levels of the last farm bill maintained. This push to keep the status quo has even resulted in some elected officials supporting a simple extension of the old farm bill.

The congressman and senators are harrumphing at outside suggestions on farm policy, reminding us that they are the ones who will write the legislation. This is why it is so hard to get any truly new ideas injected into the debate. Eager to protect their political capital, lawmakers approach the farm bill with a defensive attitude.

Thus, I suggest we take the writing of the Farm Bill out of the hands of stuffy bureaucrats, pork barrel politicians, and ivory tower academics and give it to the FFA. After all, they represent the future and will be the generation that will inherit the results of the farm policy we write today.

There are several advantages to having the FFA write the Farm Bill. First of all, it will be an orderly process, done by strict parliamentary procedure.

Second, it will be polite, with no derogatory comments and lots of “yes, sirs” and “yes, ma’ams” for special guests.

Third, the creativity, enthusiasm and passion for agriculture they will bring to the process are just what we need when crafting farm policy for the 21st century.

And don’t sell these young people short; they have what it takes to tackle the tough issues like payment limits and Country of Origin Labeling. Remember, at their national convention last year, they took on the issue of a female dress code, a gutsy move for an organization of high school students. I am sure if given the chance the FFA could develop a fresh and innovative approach to farm policy, something we are unlikely to get from Capitol Hill.

This farm news was published in the May 17, 2006 issue of Farm World.