In a nod to farmers who rise early every day to produce America’s food, President Bush signed the Farm Bill, known formally as the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, at 7:46 a.m. on May 13, giving Delta farmers a reprieve from economic uncertainty.
“This bill provides stability and predictability for Mississippi farmers,” said U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who served as a member of the House and Senate conference committee, which wrote the bill. “(It) will end the uncertainty about farm programs.”
The six-year bill provides annual crop support payments to farmers through a marketing loan program and target price mechanism.
“It’s a step in the right direction to help farmers recover from the economic depression they’ve been in,” said Kenneth Hood, past chairman of the Delta Council and a Mississippi Delta farmer, who planted 10,000 acres of cotton last year.
Ben Lamensdorf, a farmer from Rolling Fork and immediate past president of the Delta Council, called the new farm bill “a relief.”
“For two years, the Delta Council has worked real hard with Senators Cochran and Lott to get a Farm Bill that would be beneficial for everyone,” he said.
Stephen L. Rochelle, CEO of First South Agricultural Credit Association, said the immediate benefit of the new Farm Bill was simple: it would allow lenders to continue loaning money to farmers.
“As a lender, I’m very happy to see this passed,” he said. “Without a Farm Bill, we probably couldn’t continue to loan to the farmers and they wouldn’t be able to continue to farm.”
Mark Keenum, Cochran’s chief of staff, said the new Farm Bill “provides meaningful support that farmers can rely on for the next six years without having to worry about ad hoc disaster funding from Congress.”
The Farm Bill raises subsidy rates for grain and cotton growers and renews a target-price system abolished in 1996 to provide supplemental income. The legislation also brings back subsidies for honey and wool producers and provides new payments for milk, dry peas, lentils and peanuts.
“The new Farm Bill will put a safety net under us during times of low prices and that’s what is needed for us to compete with the new world market,” said Hood. “But when prices do recover, and the cost of production is where it needs to be for us to stay in business, it takes the government out of it.”
First South ACA had already calculated its loans for the year, with a $100,000 loan as the average, said Rochelle.
“We had to have all of our loans worked before the Farm Bill was finalized,” he said. “Fortunately, it turned out better than we projected.”
Under the Farm Bill, land-conservation programs will receive a hefty 80% increase in spending, which will benefit livestock farms and fruit and vegetable growers who typically do not receive much federal funding. Landowners will now be able to bid for permanent or 30-year easements.
The Conservation Reserve Program, a provision authored by Cochran in the 1996 Farm Bill, was reauthorized with additional acres allowed for enrollment in the wetland reserve program, which provides assistance to landowners to provide wildlife habitat on their land.
“These incentives for landowners will allow people to continue to produce some sort of agriculture product, and land values will at least hold steady,” said Sells J. Newman Jr., senior vice president of Ridgeland-based First South ACA.
The Farm Bill requires retail-level country-of-origin labeling for ground beef, pork, lamb, farm-raised and wild fish and shellfish, fruits and vegetables and peanuts.
“This is a big victory for our state’s catfish farmers and the jobs that this industry provides for the people of Mississippi,” said Third District Congressman Chip Pickering, who serves on the Commerce Committee and introduced the legislation, primarily to protect Mississippi’s catfish farmers from misleading Vietnamese catfish imports. “The bill also has good provisions for dairy farmers as well as rural development initiatives.”
The Farm Bill authorizes significant funding to address biomass research and development, which will affect the way Mississippi producers deal with poultry litter. The forestry section of the bill strengthens Congress’ commitment to sustainable forest management. (Forestry ranks second among Mississippi’s top agricultural crops.)
The Farm Bill includes $100 million for loans and loan guarantees to allow rural consumers to receive high-speed, high-quality broadband access and provides $50 million in grants to train rural firefighters and emergency personnel and improve training facilities.
Funding will be allocated for the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements program, designed to issue loans and grants to assist individual farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses in purchasing renewable energy systems and making energy efficiency improvements.
Fourth District Congressman Ronnie Shows authored a provision in the Farm Bill to ensure that USDA veterinarians would be paid an hourly rate for overtime. Previously, federal veterinarians, who inspect all consumable meat and poultry by testing products for animal diseases and microbiological and chemical contamination, had been paid less than their hourly rate in reimbursable overtime.
Not everyone is happy with the Farm Bill. Senate Republicans outside the Deep South have described the bill as a “multibillion-dollar return to Depression-era policies,” one that “gives farmers an incentive to overproduce,” and a “budget-busting step backward in agriculture planning” at a time when President Bush has called on lawmakers to show fiscal restraint.
“I’m afraid they’ve lost their focus on what the Farm Bill is all about,” said David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. “Unfortunately, they have a misconception that it is only for farmers. But the Farm Bill is for the American consumer. No farmer is transferring that payment to his bottom line. He’s using it to subsidize his operation. Ultimately, the subsidy causes consumer food to be much cheaper.”
Even though the Farm Bill laid the groundwork for farmer financing for the next six years, “it’s going to be a fight every year,” said Newman.
“Everybody’s fussing about the Farm Bill, but nobody fusses when they go to the grocery store and get the food they need at a good price,” said Rochelle. “Right now, we’re paying less than 10