- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

PORT REPUBLIC, Md.

Earl “Buddy” Hance, a fifth-generation Maryland farmer, grows corn and soybeans on about 400 acres of land in Calvert County. Another half-acre of greenhouses grows flowers that end up in Home Depot garden shops.

Despite the disparity in acreage, the greenhouses generate more income than the crops. Without federal subsidies, corn and soybeans wouldn’t be worth planting at all, said Mr. Hance, 50.

“If it weren’t for the farm bill, I’d be out of the grain business. Without the farm bill, we’d be done,” he said while walking among hanging red geraniums and flats of pink and white petunias.

The farm bill, officially called the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, will distribute agricultural subsidies worth an estimated $21.3 billion this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The farm bill is popular among growers and lawmakers from rural districts because of its support for major commodities. The vast majority of all payments go to corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat. The legislation has been under attack by environmental groups, international trade partners, budget hawks and farmers excluded from major programs since it became law four years ago.

Now, agriculture groups, the White House and Congress are laying the groundwork to write legislation governing farm subsidies, trade, conservation programs, and food and nutrition programs before the current legislation expires next year.

The Bush administration appears to be building a case for significant changes in a U.S. farm program that pays the bulk of subsidies for five crops that generate less than one quarter of farm income, has come under attack at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and was written when the federal budget was stronger.

“We really deserve a national conversation about the future of American agriculture,” said Ed Loyd, spokesman for the Agriculture Department. “I think we are in the phase where we are gathering information. We haven’t made any specific proposals. But … we think we can do better [than the 2002 bill].”

The administration has reform-minded allies among environmental groups that see current programs as corporate welfare for agribusiness, as well as farm groups that receive little or no direct subsidies.

“Food is not just five crops. We need our government to recognize us and take us seriously for what we provide our nation,” said Mark Murai, president of the California Strawberry Commission. The commission would like to see federal farm aid directed away from the big commodity supports and into nutrition programs, technical assistance to boost exports and research to increase yields.

Any major overhaul is likely to meet resistance from U.S. commodity producers. Growers say they need the government support to maintain a steady income as commodity prices rise and fall, to compete with even more heavily subsidized farmers in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, and to contend with rising agricultural powers such as Brazil that are producing more grains for the world while shutting U.S. products out of their home markets.

“This is probably the most popular farm bill I can remember,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, the country’s largest farm association. “We feel good about the farm bill and our ability to maintain it.”

The administration and U.S. farmers had hoped that WTO talks among 149 nations would mandate lower government support for all producers — especially in Europe — in return for opening markets to U.S. exports. The WTO talks are stalled, however, and new rules are unlikely to be set this year or next.

Meanwhile, litigation at the WTO has forced the U.S. to pare some subsidies. Brazil last year successfully argued that U.S. payments to cotton farmers harm Brazilian producers by encouraging overproduction and lowering world prices. Uruguay is considering a similar case against U.S. rice subsidies, and Canada is contemplating a case on corn.

The federal budget situation also has changed. Congress wrote and approved the farm bill after four years of surpluses. The Congressional Budget Office projects a 2006 deficit of more than $300 billion.

“We don’t know how much money will be made available to us, but we have to be aware that money will be tight,” said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Mr. Goodlatte said it is too soon to know how the next bill will be shaped. Factors that will affect the final product include the budget, energy-policy priorities such as ethanol production, and WTO negotiations and litigation. Barring a breakthrough at the WTO, though, foreign rivals should not expect Congress to abandon American farmers, Mr. Goodlatte said.

“The Congress is not going to unilaterally disarm our farmers and ranchers in terms of their ability to compete internationally,” he said.

That would suit Mr. Hance just fine. Farm subsidies are one way to preserve the nation’s food production, even as real estate developers buy farmland and emerging economies compete for markets, the Maryland farmer said.

“The farm program is designed to secure a safe and abundant supply of food in the country. The amount of corporate welfare involved … is worth the security it provides,” he said.

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