Farmers speak out at meeting

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Missouri farmers want a World Trade Organization agreement that would protect Midwestern farmers, support for renewable fuels to alleviate skyrocketing energy costs, more open global markets and continued domestic farm payments.

Those were a few of the comments made at a Monday morning hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry. Three U.S. senators, including Jim Talent, R-Mo., heard more than three hours of testimony from more than a dozen farmers and ranchers in preparation of the next U.S. farm bill, which could institute sweeping changes in the nation's farm policy.

The current farm bill, passed in 2002, is scheduled to expire in 2007.

Talent said he would consider any new farm bill on its merits, but he would obviously prefer that WTO negotiations move forward before a new farm bill, or an extension of the existing farm bill, passes.

WTO negotiations broke down earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland, largely because countries could not agree on common rules for trading agricultural goods. Poorer counties want the United States to cut farm subsidies so they can bolster their own farm sectors.

Talent said it would be foolish to cut back on domestic farm payments while WTO negotiations continue.

"There's a danger that other countries might believe that we would undercut the programs over which they're negotiating," Talent said.

Missouri Rice Council representative Paul Combs of Kennett, Mo., said his hope is that Congress extends the current bill, making only slight changes on fringe issues.

"It works for us," he said. "I hope they stay as much within the current structure as possible."

Still, Combs said rice farmers want the United States to press for better trading terms that would open foreign markets while preserving domestic subsidies.

"Let's don't just throw up our hands. Let's fight this thing," Combs told Talent, who hosted the hearings along with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

Chambliss, the committee chairman, suggested it would be difficult to write a farm bill next year that has the same level of financial support for farmers as the current farm bill. He pointed out that there was a federal budget surplus five years ago and there is a deficit today.

Even if funding levels are kept steady, farmers face higher energy prices that could make it more difficult to compete, Chambliss said.

"Even outside the numbers, there are some things we need to look at," he said.

Ray Rogers of Nashville, Ark., representing the Arkansas Farm Bureau State Forestry Committee, said something has to be done about fuel costs.

Rogers said outdated U.S. energy policies led to over-dependence on foreign sources to meet our energy needs. For example, Rogers' operation uses 2,500 gallons of off-road diesel per month. In 2004, he was paying 99 cents a gallon. Last month, he paid $2.59 a gallon.

"It kills me," said Rogers, who also operates a timber company. "It kills me and it kills every other farmer in America."

The committee heard from more than a dozen men who represented industry groups ranging from the American Soybean Association to the National Wild Turkey Federation and a wine producer's group called Wine America.

On some issues, farmers spoke with a united voice. They agreed that farm payments shouldn't be trimmed. Most said having access to foreign markets is crucial to the business. A key exception to the agreement on foreign markets was Terry Hilgedick, who represented the Missouri Corn Growers Association.

The hearing is the second stop in a seven-city national tour.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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