By Joe Rutherford
Members of Congress from the Midwest and members from the South are fighting over whether this nation’s farm policy will favor crops grown primarily in the South over crops that are more prevalent in the Midwest.
At stake are Republican efforts to save $23 billion.
Or to put in more directly, Southern farmers who raise rice and peanuts are poised to see if the federal government gives them a smaller, less substantive farm safety net than that being afforded to farmers in the Midwest producing corn and soybeans.
At a more elemental level, this fight is about whether U.S. farm policy shifts finally away from direct cash payments of commodity crop subsidies and price supports to new forms of subsidized crop insurance. The move on Capitol Hill away from crop subsidies and direct payments has been slow and inexorable, but visible all the same.
Mississippi’s senior U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran has fought this battle before. He fought it in 1996, again in 2002, again in 2007-08, and he’s back in the trenches again as debate rages over the 2012 Farm Bill.
The Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill under debate is a whopping 1,009 pages long and is estimated to ultimately cost taxpayers $969 billion over the next decade. But about 80 percent of that total pays for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
After a fashion, history repeats itself. Back in 1996, the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act saw a farm bill passed that changed Depression-era crop subsidy programs in favor of a system offering guaranteed but gradually declining payments over seven years called “production flexibility contract payments.”
While purporting to substantially eliminate farm subsidies, the legislation also ended government controls over what farmers could plant.
But in 1996, Cochran was a key conferee in the bill that substantially sought to replace the old crop subsidy system with direct payments to farmers.
Cochran was later credited with authoring the 2002 Farm Bill, legislation that provides income support for wheat, feed grains, cotton, rice, and oilseeds through three programs: direct payments, countercyclical payments, and marketing loans. By 2007, Cochran was the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its powerful Agriculture Subcommittee and a key Republican leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee. The battle in what became the 2008 Farm Bill was familiar – disagreements over the continuation of crop subsidies for farmers producing corn, cotton, soybeans and rice.
Cochran argued that without the farm safety net it is more difficult for farmers to capitalize on the high market prices because there is too much uncertainty for farmers when renewing contracts or loans with farm lenders.
In the current global and national economy, not even Cochran is arguing for the crop subsidies of old. He’s had a large hand in the commodity finance reforms of the last 20 years. But he is continuing to fight for fairness for Mississippi and Southern farmers on making the austerity program a more uniform austerity for all farmers.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.