debate ensues over the 2001 Farm Bill, at least one expert predicts
the new farm legislation will be a kinder, gentler version of the
current Farm Bill.
"We’ll probably end up with some version of
the current Farm Bill, but one that also includes programs from
previous Farm Bills – sort of a kinder, gentler version of what we
have now," says Dr. James Novak, an Alabama Cooperative
Extension System agricultural economist.
Prior to 1996, farm legislation allowed farmers to
set aside some of their acreage for conservation use in order to
All of that changed with the passage of the 1996
Farm Bill, also known as the Freedom-to-Farm Act.
Born in an era of severe budgetary restraints,
Freedom-to-Farm set out with the ambitious goal of eliminating all
farm programs completely with the exception of crop insurance by
2002. To allow farmers more flexibility, it also eliminated
set-aside requirements while still allowing them to receive
However, sharp declines in farm prices forced
Congress to undertake several changes midcourse, Novak says.
"In order to keep Freedom-to-Farm from turning
out to be Freedom-to-Fail, Congress ended up providing billions of
dollars more in farm assistance," Novak says.
Despite these setbacks, supporters of
Freedom-to-Farm still hope to incorporate the 1996 principles into
the 2001 Farm Bill.
However, while farmers are likely to end up with
some version of the 1996 Farm Bill, they’re also likely to see a
smattering of programs included in previous farm bills.
The most visible sign of change, Novak says, is the
presence of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin as chairman of the Senate
Agricultural Committee – a result of the recent change from a
Republican- to a Democratic-controlled Senate.
"Harkin has been a fierce critic of
Freedom-to-Farm, and the mere fact he’s serving as chairman of the
committee is a sign that there will be changes," Novak says.
"He enjoys the support of the Corn and Soybean Growers
associations, two groups that have been pushing for a return of the
parity-based price system."
One proposal under this parity system calls for a
doubling of the corn loan rate, while the cotton loan rate would be
raised to about 81 cents.
While such steep hikes aren’t likely, Novak
believes the change of Senate leadership nevertheless increases the
likelihood loan rates will be raised.
He also believes the new farm bill also could
include some form of the Flexible Fallow Program, which would allow
farmers a sliding loan rate based on a voluntary acreage set aside.
If such a program ends up in the new farm bill, it
could bare a close resemblance to the one proposed by South Dakota
Senator Tim Johnson, Novak says.
"Under Johnson’s plan, the more acreage
farmers decided to set aside, the higher the loan rate they would
receive," he says. "Up to 30 percent of acreage could be
set aside in exchange for the highest loan rate."
More surprises also may be in store, Novak says.
For example, an unlikely coalition comprised of
several hunting and environmental groups, including the National
Rifle Association and the Sierra Club, wants to transform the new
farm bill into a landmark conservation act.
Members of these organizations are lobbying Congress
to earmark money to protect another million acres of wetlands and to
return an additional 10 million acres of cropland into trees and
As Novak sees it, there is a strong incentive among
many members of Congress to support this plan.
"As one might imagine, the proposal has the
strong support of senators and representatives in New England and
the Middle-Atlantic states who don’t get very much of the $20
billion in subsidies paid annually to producers of corn, cotton and
soybeans," Novak says.
No one can know for sure which, if any, of these
proposals actually will end up in the 2001 Farm Bill. Even so, Novak
says, several things have changed since the last bill was enacted in
1996 – factors that undoubtedly will shape debate.
"For starters, farmers face an economic climate
vastly different from that of 1996, when the last bill was
passed," Novak says. "Budgetary constraints, which drove
debate over the last farm bill, aren’t a major concern in
As Novak sees it, the factors most likely to drive
current debate are sagging demand for U.S. farm products and crop
Novak believes the new bill likely will incorporate
some version of a supplemental income payment (SIPP) to allow
farmers some relief from periodic shortfalls in farm income.
These payments, however, will have to be weighed
against the cost of other proposals, he says. They also will be
limited by trade treaty provisions and the recent $1.3 trillion tax
cut. In addition, any conservation, rural development and other
spending authorized by the new bill also will have to be balanced
against the cost of commodity programs.
"Yes, we’ll end up with a kinder, gentler
Freedom-to-Farm bill, but also one that is fiscally constrained as
well, " Novak says.
James Novak, Alabama Cooperative Extension System agricultural