Farm bill update: no good news yet

When I was a young, innocent and self-important poet, I planned to call my first book of poems “Cassandra.”

Cassandra was a prophet in Greek mythology. A god who loved her gave her an unparalleled gift for seeing the future. The catch (there’s always a catch) was, she would never be believed. I know how that goes.

A few months back, I published “The Top Five Red Herrings on the Trail of Meaningful Reform for U.S. Farm Policy,” detailing the most dangerous dead ends and non-solutions for Congress as it struggles to build a new Farm Bill to succeed the disastrous 1996 FAIR Act (also known as “Freedom to Farm,” “Freedom to Fail,” “Freedom to Go Broke” and other variants).

I identified five pitfalls for Congress. Let’s see how I’m doing so far:

Business as usual: The Big Lie of U.S. farm policy is that farm income will improve with more exports at discount prices.

All major agricultural commodities are now priced below the cost of production. Read my calculator: A loss times volume is just a greater loss!

Volume of major agricultural commodities did not increase over the past 25 years of export-based farm and trade policy, despite forecasts and promises by each administration.

“Value of exports to producers, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has declined by 30 percent – 40 percent for these commodities in that same quarter-century,” I said.

“Export-based farm policy has created a flood of cheap products for the grain and meat traders, and stolen value from producers.”

Prices for producers for all major commodities suffered the greatest decline in history last month, but neither the House nor the Senate Farm Bill proposal restores price-impacting tools to agricultural producers.

Expanded role for insurance: Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) tried to recycle this idea in the form of a five-year bill, which would phase out farm programs altogether. Not one farm organization supported this proposal, not even those with major insurance holdings.

I was right – it did come up – but mercifully, this one is dead on arrival.

Fast track authority for the president: Now called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), this bad idea is high on the permanent Republican wish list.

TPA would relieve Congress of much of its role in trade negotiations, limiting debate and allowing only up-or-down voting on deals negotiated by the president.

TPA would strip Congress of its power to examine trade agreements closely, to determine the interests of this nation and others, and to approve agreements that benefit Americans and uphold social and environmental standards for all parties.

Will the same war fever that gave the Attorney General expanded powers to wiretap and detain finally give TPA the momentum to succeed? Maybe not. TPA faces determined opposition from labor, human rights, and environmental concerns, as well as from progressive farm organizations.

Still, rust never sleeps. This one is not going away.

Counter-cyclical payments. An extraordinarily effective red herring. It looks very much as though Congress will go for this one.

The complex, cumbersome formula in the Senate Agriculture Committee Farm Bill proposal will still not secure agricultural producers their cost of production, much less a fair profit.

But it will keep the bureaucrats busy. And above all, it stays the course by making the federal farm program into a welfare program-the next-to-last step in dismantling farm programs altogether

Making the Farm Bill into a conservation bill: The Senate Agriculture Committee Farm Bill proposal has some very good bits and pieces for the environment-a strong energy title, for instance, which stresses renewables, and some expanded conservation programs.

Another proposal, the much-ballyhooed Conservation Security Act, would tie the level of support to environmental practices. Absent a meaningful commodity title, however, all bets are off.

Several national environmental groups have spent the past couple of years cozying up to family farmers. The hope was that a coalition of consumers, environmentalists and family farm interests would hang tough to protect the nation’s safe, reliable food supply and to support land stewardship by the two million farm families who produce that food.

This coalition has quietly evaporated, however. Farm organizations like Farmers Union and American Corn Growers answer to constituencies who are going broke and want a Farm Bill that will secure them a fair price for what they produce.

Many national environmental groups make their policy from the top down, have no real constituency, and are answerable primarily to a handful of grant-making foundations that set their agenda.

Environmental groups should not let themselves be used to hijack the Farm Bill.

These measures, without the other price-impacting tools farmers need, won’t stop the hemorrhaging in rural America. The environmental community needs to know that no separate peace is possible in this matter.

Times change, but, unfortunately, bad farm legislation doesn’t.

Sally Herrin is education and communications director of the Nebraska Farmers Union, an organization comprised of thousands of family farmers and ranchers in the fight for progressive farm policy.