Will farmers ask Congress for payment limits reversal?

Years ago, before it and the National Corn Growers combined their annual meetings into the Commodity Classic, I covered a number of the Soy Expos held by the American Soybean Association.

Unlike some farm groups, where most of the issues are resolved before delegates vote on their resolutions at their annual meeting, ASA members actually debated their policies in an open, sometimes no-holds-barred forum.

I remember farmers, mostly from Iowa and Illinois, railing against target prices and deficiency payments for soybeans like those for cotton, rice, wheat and feed grains because the Midwesterners “didn't want the government involved in agriculture any more than it was.”

You know what happened. Years later — after soybean acres dwindled below the 60-million mark — ASA asked Congress to treat soybeans as a program crop so producers could receive real income protection against low prices.

I was reminded of those debates while listening to the webcast of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition's mark-up session on the Agricultural Reconciliation Act of 2005.

In a thick, Midwest accent that triggered memories of the ASA fights, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley said he would not introduce his payment limit amendment in committee as some expected, but intended to pursue it when the budget reconciliation bill reaches the Senate floor.

“I think where 10 percent of the farmers get 72 percent of the benefits from the farm program we're creating a situation where we're not going to get urban support in the House of Representatives for the next farm bill,” he noted. “Secondly, we're driving up farmland prices and cash rents so young people can't get started farming.”

The committee voted 4-16 against a payment limits amendment introduced by Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn. Dayton wanted to use a $250,000 per farmer limit to offset restoring a 27 percent cut in the Milk Income Loss Contract program that was extended in the committee's ag reconciliation bill.

Grassley took issue with Democratic members of the committee who claimed the $3 billion in cuts in its budget reconciliation package meant the United States was “unilaterally disarming” its farm programs before the debate currently under way in the WTO was finished.

“I would suggest that we won't do that until we re-write the 2007 farm bill, and when we do we'll know whether the WTO was successful,” he said. “So we're not going to unilaterally disarm, we're not going to buy a pig in a poke, until we know what the WTO gives the American farmer.”

Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss applauded Grassley's comments on the WTO but couldn't agree with him on payment limits. “I was on your team until you got to that part,” he said.

You have to wonder how many Iowa farmers will be on Grassley's team a few years from now. Farms will continue to get bigger, prices won't change significantly and growers who want tighter payment limits now may be asking Congress to reverse itself — just like ASA did in the 1996 farm bill.

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