Farm bill gets Friday focus

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., stepped outside her district Friday to gain some perspective on agriculture across the state in preparation for upcoming debate over a new Farm Bill in Congress.

Wilson said she had relied on the late Rep. Joe Skeen for that perspective in the past, but was pleased with the success of Friday’s roundtable discussion that touched on a variety of topics, from dairy issues to grain and peanut programs as well as the concerns of the cattle industry.

“There’s only so much you can get from reading reports,” Wilson said following the meeting at Eastern New Mexico University. “These people taught me more in an hour than I could ever learn on Capitol Hill.”

One topic that drew competing viewpoints from the producers gathered was mandates for ethanol use that have come down from Washington. Dairy and cattle producers worried the country’s commitment to ethanol may not sustain itself while livestock-based producers suffer from high feedstock prices and consumers feel the pinch at the grocery store.

“This whole ethanol situation is something we have extreme concerns about,” said Caren Cowan, chairperson of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association from Albuquerque. “It looks like we’re going to a cliff and taking a dive. If you play this thing out three, four, five years, I think you run the risk of animal agriculture leaving the U.S.”

Toby Bostwick of Melrose, who is president of the New Mexico Sorghum Producers, said grain producers can help supply the country with all the ethanol it will need within the next seven years.

“I really don’t think you can blame the whole grain price thing on ethanol,” Bostwick said. “Grain was the beginning, who knows where the end will be.”

Roosevelt County farmer Curtis Breshears said the country has always enjoyed cheap food prices.

“We don’t know what disaster is until we become dependent on another country for our food,” Breshears proclaimed.

Wilson said she fears other countries controlling the energy the United States depends on and that’s why she is supportive of ethanol and a variety of other fuel sources, including nuclear power.

“It’s got to be a balanced, long-term policy,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to explore or conserve our way out of it (energy concerns).”
Wilson says she expects the Farm Bill to be on the floor of the House sometime in July. She told the mixed group of agriculture producers assembled that once it starts things will move quickly, and she wanted to be prepared with the information and contacts necessary to represent New Mexico’s diversity of agriculture well.

Terry Ervin, ENMU associate professor of agriculture, who chaired the roundtable, said the 2002 Farm Bill, which will expire this fall, is actually an amendment to the 1938 Farm Bill. Without a new bill, things would revert to the 1938 bill, which was based on parity. Ervin says if the U.S. reverted to the 1938 Farm Bill it would ruin the budget. That gives Congress its incentive to act this summer.

The Farm Bill comes up in a five-year cycle in Congress. The Farm Bill proposed by USDA is based on the 2002 bill with changes. The focus of some of those changes, according to USDA’s Web site, include specialty crops, beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers.

“When we get to the floor, we may not know what the amendments are going to be until the last minute,” Wilson said. “Sometimes they’re kind of tricky. We may offer a few (tricky amendments) ourselves.”

She stressed that the information and contacts she made on her visit would give her the ability to make a quick call and figure out the impact of particular amendments on New Mexico producers.

Dairy Concerns
Alva Carter, Roosevelt County dairyman:
“I think it would be good if we could do away with MILC (Milk Income Loss Contract program). It doesn’t do the larger dairy farmers any good.”
Carter said price supports, especially on powdered milk, would be desirable. He said powdered milk prices are the trigger for all dairy products.
Carter also said world trade issues are a big concern for dairy farmers.
He also said he has concerns about the record-keeping loopholes that exist for organic dairies that are receiving additional support.

Sharon Lombardi, executive director, Dairy Producers of New Mexico:
Lombardi said her group was opposed to programs that would create forward contracting of milk, such as is required of grain producers. She said that process would be harmful to the dairy industry because of the lack of players in the milk market as opposed to the larger numbers in the grain business. She told Wilson that nearly all the Western states opposed forward contracting, while some Eastern states were in favor.
Lombardi agreed with Carter on the MILC program not being necessary. She pointed out that it had been two years since prices had dropped low enough to trigger payments in the program. She said it hadn’t been widely used since the 1990s.
She also said she hopes the current indemnity program associated with bovine tuberculosis testing is studied closely.
Lombardi also said her group was keenly interested in biomass production of energy that could utilize dairy manure as a renewable energy source.

Cattle Concerns
Caren Cowan, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association:
Cowan said her industry has suffered from drought, snowstorms, flooding and tornadoes all in the last year.
“We haven’t had a hurricane or tsunami yet, but it’s only July,” she quipped.
She said the snowstorm in the Clayton area was heaviest on her mind, and she hoped for quicker and more effective disaster relief.
She also said she and other cattle producers had severe reservations about the CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program).
“Taking us out of business in the name of conservation is not working.”
She worried that eventually so much land will be taken out of production that the United States won’t be able to feed itself. She said she would like to see emphasis on other conservation programs that don’t completely take the land out of production.

Grain Concerns
Paul Stout, president New Mexico Wheat Growers Association:
Stout said wheat growers are concerned about not having been able to take advantage of countercyclical payments (supports that pay when prices drop below a target price) in their programs and are anxious to see them in the new Farm Bill.
“A lot of people look at the price we have today and think the price will stay up there. That’s just not true.”
Stout said many wheat farmers fell out of the programs because of successive years of drought and other disasters.

Toby Bostwick, Melrose sorghum producer and president of New Mexico Sorghum Producers:
Bostwick said sorghum producers like the idea of a direct payment program. He said that type payment makes it easier for young farmers starting out because their lending institution knows what they’ll be getting because there are no price indexes or supports.
Bostwick says direct payments fit within WTO (World Trade Organization) guidelines, which is another benefit.

Peanut Concerns
Bill Walker, New Mexico Peanut Producers:
Walker said peanut growers are concerned that handling and storage fees, which had previously been included in the Farm Bill, not be left out as they now are in 2007.
He also said proposed payment limits based on crop size, which could be dropped from $2 million to $200,000, could also affect some eastern New Mexico farmers.
Walker also asked that peanut loan prices not be raised without a corresponding raise in target prices.