Legislative wheels turn slowly in setting ag policy


December 02, 2007|By TED SHELSBY

If farmers moved as slowly as Congress, there would be no corn crop this year.

Nearly three months have passed since the 2002 federal Farm Bill expired, and representatives in Washington continue to struggle to come up with a replacement.

It could be some time -- maybe even a year or more -- before lawmakers decide on a new nationwide farm policy.

That's a prediction from Bruce Gardner, a professor at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who has been closely following the agriculture debate on Capitol Hill.

One possibility is that Congress could pass a one- or two-year extension of the current bill, Gardner said.

The House passed its version of a farm bill in July. The Senate, however, is bogged down with a proposed $288 billion agriculture spending program. The logjam stems from hundreds of amendments and concerns about billions of dollars in tax increases.

The 2007 Farm Bill would set the federal government's agriculture policy for the next five years. The broad-based plan affects an array of programs, including farmer assistant payments, food stamps, milk price support, farmland preservation and environmental conservation.

The bill could also have a big impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"The Farm Bill currently on the Senate floor would provide an unprecedented amount of conservation funding critical to the health of local farms and water quality in rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay," said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"This bill provides farmers the tools they need to reduce runoff and remain profitable," he added. "Allowing this gridlock to continue and failing to pass a new farm bill jeopardizes up to $500 million in new conservation funding for the region."

Maryland farmers can make a good case for being denied their fair share of previous federal farm support programs. Farms in the state accounted for 0.8 percent of the country's $240 billion farm sales last year, but they received only one-half of 1 percent of the $20 billion the government paid out in support funds, Gardner said.

"Maryland is big in poultry and greenhouse/nursery operations," Gardner said. "Unfortunately, they don't receive support payments. Rice and cotton do well, but we don't have them in Maryland."

Poultry is the biggest segment of Maryland's farm economy. Chicken sales at the farm level totaled more than $535 million last year, roughly 35 percent of total farm sales.

Although much remains to be decided, Maryland could fare better in a new bill, Gardner said. In addition to the proposed increased spending on bay conservation programs, farmers could benefit from more spending on specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables, he said.

The money would not go directly to farmers, but to industry support programs for research, Gardner said. Farmers could benefit from the development of a better pesticide that could reduce mold on peaches or protect vegetables from disease.

Maryland dairy farmers, however, might not do as well as vegetable growers.

A provision of the proposed legislation would increase the number of dairy farms participating in the government's Milk Income Loss Contract program. Commonly called MILC, the program helps farmers when the price they are paid for their milk drops below the cost of production.

The program is currently limited to farms with 140 cows or fewer. Some lawmakers want to have it apply to larger farms with 250 cows.

"The current program is more beneficial to smaller farms like we have in Maryland," Gardner said. "We don't have many of the bigger farms like you see in California.

"It's not a huge deal with milk prices as high as they are now, but we all know milk prices will be coming down again," he said. "They always do."

Loan deadline nears

Time is running out for farmers who want to tap into a new state loan program designed to ease financial setbacks from this year's drought.

The deadline to apply for a low-interest loan through the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industrial Development Corp. (MARBIDCO) is Dec. 15.

Gov. Martin O'Malley established the program in September, saying a federal, low-interest, disaster-loan program benefited few farms in previous drought years.

Under the state program, loans of up to $75,000 are available ($150,000 if land is used as collateral) at a 5 percent fixed annual percentage rate.

Information and applications are available by calling the MARBIDCO office at 410-267-6807 or visiting www.marbidco.org.

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