The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Farm Bureau delegates support ethanol changes, consider dairy supply management


ATLANTA — Delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention voted here Tuesday to endorse continuation of most of the 2008 farm bill programs in the 2012 bill and support changes to the ethanol program, while breaking with their usual ideology to consider supporting a supply management program in dairy.

The 370 delegates from all 50 states voted for a resolution “to extend the concepts of the 2008 farm bill” and programs including crop insurance, direct payments, countercyclical payments, marketing loans and the average crop revenue election program known as ACRE.

With that resolution, the delegates avoided a potential battle. Northern Farm Bureau chapters led by Iowa have suggested cutting the direct payments program to use the money to improve crop insurance and other programs that pay farmers more money in times of trouble, while southern farmers want to continue the direct payments and say the crop insurance program does not work well for cotton and rice.

“The 2008 farm bill has worked as farmers and ranchers have weathered market ups and downs over the last four years,” Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman, a Texas rice farmer, said in a statement. “It’s important to maintain a program that protects our nation’s food, fiber and fuel supply and the consumers who rely on agriculture’s productivity.”

Stallman had asked the delegates in his annual speech on Sunday to give him clear direction, but the delegates’ votes appeared to leave position decisions up to Stallman and board, should choices have to be made.

Farm Bureau members are very aware of the budget pressures on the government, but are not willing to make decisions among programs until they see how much Congress wants to cut farm programs, explained Farm Bureau Washington lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher. A 2 percent cut would have a different impact on programs than a 10 percent cut, she said in a meeting with reporters. The farm program vote “gives us a lot of flexibility,” Thatcher said. “Nobody wants a cut, but if you don’t know what size the cuts are going to be, you don’t want to tie yourself up.”

The only major part of the 2008 farm bill that the Farm Bureau did not endorse was the permanent disaster aid program, opting to endorse ad hoc disaster programs. The permanent disaster program, which was written by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has worked better in the North than in the South, and in 2010 the Obama administration ended up creating a disaster program to benefit the South when Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., was in a re-election race that she ultimately lost.

The Farm Bureau also voted to support changing the ethanol tax credit program into one that would use the current blender credit funds to invest in the installation of a blender pump network for ethanol and biodiesel. The delegates also included a provision supporting legislation to require that all new gasoline-powered vehicles be made to allow the use of flex fuel. The Farm Bureau position essentially follows that of Growth Energy, an ethanol group that has proposed the change.

Farm Bureau has traditionally taken a free-market position in opposition to any attempts to control supply of any commodity, but the delegates endorsed consideration of a dairy supplement management program as part of a larger reform of the dairy program. The vote will allow the Farm Bureau to consider the dairy policy proposal developed by the National Milk Producers Federation, Thatcher said.

Dana Brooks, a National Milk lobbyist who attended the Farm Bureau convention, said in an email that National Milk was “pleased with the results” of the votes. National Milk is the largest organization of dairy farmers, but its proposal is controversial. The International Dairy Foods Association, which represents the processors, opposes supply management and says any attempt to control supply will hurt attempts to increase dairy exports, while small dairy farm groups say the National Milk proposal will not solve the dairy industry’s problems.

“We’ve seen extreme fluctuations in dairy prices, and in the last two years the dairy sector has had a tougher time than other sectors,” Stallman explained in a statement. “We can’t continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome. We need a change in our nation’s dairy policy.”

Convention delegates spent a lot of time discussing crop insurance, which some farmers see as the core of the farm program in the future. They voted to support requiring farmers to buy crop insurance if they are to participate in the farm program and disaster programs. They also passed a controversial amendment calling on biotech companies to develop a “protocol” for dealing with the future of biotech seed before the patents on those seeds expire. Some delegates said such a proposal interferes with the companies’ private property rights, but there was widespread concern about the patents coming off 28 products in the coming years and the future and continuous supply of those products.

Although the Farm Bureau has in the past had mixed views on country of origin labeling of farm products, the delegates voted to support adding honey and dry beans to the list of products that get the labels.

One delegate said tightening up the eligibility for food stamps as a way to cut farm bill spending, but that idea did not go anywhere. The delegates also rejected a proposal that any cuts in programs should be the same for each title of the farm bill. That proposal would have meant that the Farm Bureau favored cutting food stamps at a time of high unemployment. By not adopting it, the Farm Bureau avoided a battle with anti-hunger groups that are a key part of the farm-to-table coalition that achieves final passage of farm bills.

Meanwhile, a survey of Farm Bureau members conducted by Reuters reporter Christopher Doering showed that farmers attending the convention believe their interests will be put aside by Congress as lawmakers devote more attention to tackling broader issues such as the deficit. A random survey of 436 attendees at the convention found that 46 percent expect Congress to give less attention to farm interests, while 28 percent said they think it will increase.