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Farm Bill would level playing field

<p>Rick Fahr</p>

Rick Fahr

The Farm Bill that passed the Senate last week has a little bit in it for everybody, save families who use food stamps.

Food stamp funding would drop about 5 percent if the bill becomes law, and food stamp funds account for about $4 out of every $5 of the $100 billion annual bill.

For farmers, though, some came out winners; some came out losers; some will ultimately probably come out about even.

The bill’s framers, it appears, sought to level the playing field between Southern row crop farmers and most every other agriculture sector — except for the sugar industry, which retained its niche subsidies. Whoever runs the sugar lobby needs a raise, because those folks are doing a heckuva job.

What does the bill mean for Arkansas farmers? Maybe a net gain, but we won’t fully know until the House passes a bill and a conference committee hammers out a compromise. But under the Senate bill, the state’s farmers will lose direct payments, price supports in case commodity prices fall below a certain level. That safety net guaranteed farmers a floor price for rice, soybeans, corn, etc. But as most farmers would acknowledge, commodity prices haven’t been near that floor in a while, and there’s little to believe that prices would fall to the floor anytime in the near future.

There is a flip side to the commodity prices of the past few years. The cost of putting in a crop has skyrocketed. Fuel costs more. Fertilizer costs are ridiculously high and John Deere doesn’t give away those shiny green tractors and combines.

On the positive side, federal crop insurance (for catastrophic crop failures) will get a boost. The amount farmers pay in premiums will go down, and that’s money back in their pocket. They will have to adhere to certain guidelines, but the vast majority of the state’s farmers already do the right things. Those who will be hurt by the crop insurance changes are those who abuse the system, and there are a few who do.

Plus, insurance payments will phase down for farms with a gross income of more than $750,000, which will affect some “family” farms but will hit the “corporate” farms harder.

The crop insurance portion of the bill is more important in states such as Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and others because many farmers in those locales can’t or don’t irrigate their crops. A dry month at the wrong time can, indeed, cause a catastrophic crop failure. In Arkansas, though, most soybeans, corn and milo get watered a time or three each summer, thereby nearly guaranteeing a crop worth harvesting in the fall.

One other group of Arkansas farmers — though the term should be “ranchers” actually since we’re talking about animals and not plants — who lost a round in this bill are those who raise catfish. Sen. Mark Pryor had pushed to have the Department of Agriculture control catfish inspections. This is a hot topic because imported fish from Asia are directly competing with homegrown, pond-raised, corn-fed catfish. If you didn’t know about the Great Catfish War, you’ve been missing out on a heated battle.

Who won this round of the every-five-year argument over the Farm Bill? Farmers in the Midwest and Upper Midwest. They are getting a more level playing field when it comes to government assistance.

This day of reckoning has been coming for some time. Southern farmers have been losing clout in Congress over the years, and each time the Farm Bill has come up for reconsideration, the tradeoffs have gone more and more the way of farmers in other parts of the country.

Wonder how that might have changed had a certain chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee not lost her re-election bid in 2010?

Rick Fahr is publisher of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. His e-mail is rick.fahr@thecabin.net

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