Texas Ag Forum offers insights into farm bill debates

If some awful disaster had hit the Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark Monday, Texas would have lost some of the state’s, possibly the country’s, most important agricultural leaders.

The Texas Ag forum, a group of influential commodity, university and agency leaders, met to discuss the farm bill, currently being debated, discussed and dissected by Congress, commodity groups and perhaps the Super Committee — that 12-person panel equally represented by Democrats and Republicans and representatives and senators who have been charged to find a way to trim about $1.5 trillion off the deficit.

The meeting was a Who’s Who of agricultural luminaries from Texas, mostly, but with Washington, Kansas and other parts of the country represented as well. I’m not sure why they allowed me in the door, but I’m grateful for the invitation.

The Forum doesn’t meet every year, according to Joe Outlaw, co-director of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center and an Extension economist at Texas A&M University. He’s also on the Ag Forum steering committee.

Outlaw says the Texas Ag Forum meets when issues warrant. They warrant now, considering that the Super Committee is looking for ways to make deep cuts in the U.S. government’s budget and considering the continuing claims that farm programs are too costly.

Agricultural legislation, folks at the Forum said, is a soft target, easy pickings. And fewer members of Congress representing rural America means fewer voices to speak up for the most important industry in the country.

Participants were reminded time and time again that this farm bill debate is taking place under budget constraints they have not witnessed in decades, if ever. It’s also taking place in hyperdrive. House and Senate ag committees are crunching numbers and evaluating programs to produce reasonable cuts rather than wait for the Super Committee to ‘pick a number.’ Their deadline was Nov. 1.

Outlaw said the Forum offers Texas commodity organizations and others with vested interests in agriculture an opportunity to hear what the options may be and to get involved as best they can in the debate.

Tom Sell, with Combest, Sell and Associates, a farm advocacy group in Washington, said the key for agriculture — as proposals are being bandied about in Congress from various organizations and committees — is “that details matter. And you need to be involved.”

He said discussions ongoing in Washington are “pretty cloistered. They’re hammering ideas at one another, but the process is not transparent.”

One big target, speakers said, is the direct payment option included in the current farm program. No one gives direct payments much chance of surviving in the 2012 farm bill. Proposals to replace direct payments, ideas that would provide some semblance of a safety net, include revenue assurance plans. Those would be based on some sort of crop insurance coverage, linked to average yield and commodity prices.

No one seemed to be anything more than resigned to the revenue assurance proposals and many expressed trepidation that such programs leave a significant income gap if either production or prices fall precipitously. And they mostly agreed that production and prices will fall at some time in the future. They always do. It’s the nature of farming and ranching.

They also object to a term being used/overused in these new proposals. Revenue programs highlight ‘shallow losses.’ Farmers and ranchers want to know who determines what a shallow loss is. To a farmer who loses 15 percent of his income from an enterprise that has, at best, a 5 percent or 6 percent profit margin, that much loss is anything but shallow. It cuts deep.

Comments from forum participants indicated that they could offer no concrete solutions to the debate going on in Washington, only suggestions, proposals, and ideas from the men and women who will be most affected by whatever Congress decides to do with farm legislation.

It was reassuring to see, however, that Texas leaders are more than just interested in what goes on in D.C. They understand the implications. They realize what’s at stake. They are informed and they are engaged.



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