by Scott Yates, Staff Writer
USDA secretary's farm bill proposal doesn't incorporate what he promised
SPOKANE - Ray Buttars, an Idaho wheat grower who serves as head of the National Association of Wheat Growers' domestic policy committee, has a ready answer to a reporter's call for a reaction to the secretary of Agriculture's farm bill proposal.
"It's hard to get excited about it. I don't see a lot of things for anybody to get excited about," he said.
Buttars' disappointment over USDA Secretary Mike Johanns' farm bill proposal is doubly difficult because NAWG hit the ground running in pursuit of a better deal in 2007 than wheat growers received in 2002. The organization has not been reluctant to blame politics and political muscle, pure and simple, for the wheat industry's poor showing five years ago.
Dale Schuler, a Montana wheat grower and NAWG president, said everybody knows the levels of support assigned different commodities were not set through cost of production or need but by political influence.
"That's why we're making our case. There needs to be a different approach," he said, adding that his organization was extremely disappointed by Johanns' farm bill blueprint.
Schuler said Johanns did not provide the equity among crops he had promised to include at the 52 farm bill forums he held around the country.
"There were three items the secretary identified all along: that it be equitable, predictable and beyond challenge for WTO purposes. The secretary has recognized wheat was not provided as much support as other crops in the '02 Farm Bill, (but) this farm bill proposal carries through those inequities," he said.
The good news for wheat growers is "the secretary proposes, Congress disposes." Nevertheless, Schuler knows the depth of detail in the secretary's proposal likely means at least some of it will be adopted by Congress.
And Schuler grudgingly admitted it's not "a total failure." There are bright spots in the conservation title, and energy provisions are friendlier to wheat growers. Among other things, there's more - though not nearly enough - money set aside for the Conservation Security Program. And there's more money for research on cellulosic ethanol, along with loan guarantees for companies willing to build facilities.
The failure of the secretary's bill from a wheat grower's perspective sits squarely in the Commodity Title. Buttars said the small increase in direct payments doesn't do anything for wheat growers who have seen fuel and fertilizer costs rise dramatically. And the revenue-based countercyclical will not cover wheat growers because it is based on a national average yield that doesn't deviate more than 5 percent in any particular year.
"Say there is a drought in the Pacific Northwest and everyone has half their normal production. That still isn't going to be much of a trigger. The payments come only if there is a national disaster," he said.
And when it comes to means testing, what if a farmer had one good year and when it's combined with his wife's salary, who had taken a job off the farm so they could stay on it, the total exceeds the $200,000 adjusted gross income level Johanns has proposed. Should that make a farmer ineligible for $150,000 worth of various support payments?
"I struggle with that. How unfair is it if a farming operation can't make ends meet and momma goes to town and makes big bucks. Should the farm suddenly become ineligible?" Buttars asked.
Concerning the 2002 Farm Bill, which has left wheat growers unprotected, he said the secretary's 2007 farm bill proposal is only "a different way of not helping."
The next step for Buttars, Schuler and NAWG lobbyists Jennifer Spurgat and Mark Gaede is to ensure the agriculture committees in both the House and Senate understand the problems with the secretary's proposal.
Recently, Spurgat and Gaede presented a lobbying 101 lesson for wheat growers in Washington, D.C. Besides being on time and dressing appropriately for meetings with congressional staffers or office holders, the pair advised staying on message.
If a congressman can make small talk for half an hour, that's one less thing he has to deal with, Gaede said.
The wheat growers plan to be prepared to answer questions about Johanns' farm bill proposal from staff of both the House and Senate agriculture committees as well as continuing a grassroots communication effort with representatives.
"I think wheat will have more influence on Congress' writings and level of support. There are certainly a lot of wheat producers in Congressman (Colin) Peterson's district," he said, referring to the new House Agriculture Committee chairman.
As for the expected lobbying efforts from specialty crop producers during this year's farm bill debate, Schuler said, "I expect that will happen, though I'm not sure to what extent they want to participate."
In any case, it will be a smaller pie. Of the $10 billion the secretary plans on saving in the 2007 Farm Bill, most of it comes out of the commodity title. And that's the one place it most needs to be maintained, Schuler said.
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