Published on 03/30/06

Georgia farmers told farm bill likely to change

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

South Georgia farmers told congressmen in Valdosta, Ga., March 28 that the United States' current domestic farm policy works for farmers and rural Georgia. With a few modifications, they should keep this in mind when making future policy decisions.

But the farmers were told it's going to be tough to keep things the same.

"Georgia producers have been well served by the current farm bill," said Mike Newberry, an Early County row crop farmer. "We strongly support its balanced approach to commodity, conservation, nutrition and rural development."

Newberry and five other farmers testified to eight members of the House Agricultural Committee's subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management. The group was there to take suggestions about the country's next farm bill, due to Congress in 2007.

"(The current farm bill) provides benefits and support in times of low prices without distorting overall planting decisions," Newberry said.

U.S. taxpayers benefit when they invest in agriculture through the farm bill, said Donald Chase, a Macon County farmer. They get an affordable, secure food supply, environmental benefits and a solid tax base for rural economies.

Chase, a Georgia Peanut Commission board member, said the peanut program under the current farm bill has been a success. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn't run the program well. It sets the peanut loan repayment rate too high. Peanut farmers have lost a large part of their export market because of this.

All the farmers said U.S. growers are not on an even playing field with those in countries that have cheaper input costs and labor. The current farm bill has helped keep them globally competitive.

But one big unknown will influence future U.S. farm policy, said Jim Marshall, a Democratic congressman from Georgia's 3rd District.

The World Trade Organization's "Doha round" of trade negotiations began in Doha, Qatar, in 2001 and has continued in four other cities. Its aim is to lower trade barriers between its 149-member countries, including the United States. And its focus is to provide fairer trade for developing countries.

Some U.S. farm subsidies could be on the chopping block, Marshall said. Last year, Brazil and west African countries sued and won a case in WTO court against U.S. cotton subsidies that are part of the current farm bill. The next farm bill would have to gel with any agreements made in Doha.

A Doha agreement will probably force farmers and Congress to come up with new ways to support U.S. agriculture in the future. But farmers are a minority in the United States, Marshall said. And the people who represent them are a minority in Washington. To have influence, U.S. agriculture will need to speak with one voice.

"We're in an era where people want an excuse to vote against spending money," Marshall said.

Wavell Robinson, a farmer from Colquitt County, said it costs him 17 percent more than last year to grow cotton due to recent spikes in fuel and fertilizer costs. The next farm bill should include a support mechanism that kicks in during a time like this.

Unlike most businesses, "farmers can't pass that cost on," Robinson said.

Bill Brim, a Tift County vegetable farmer, said Georgia farmers stay competitive through agricultural research like that done by scientists with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

He and the other farmers told the committee they must continue to support research programs, particularly those that study the use of farm crops to make biofuel.

"Our future to stay competitive depends on research," Brim said.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.