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Future Farm Bill Caught in Budget Crunch

While Washington fights the battle of the budget, a farm bill that will lead the nation's agriculture into the next century is caught in the crunch.

And failure to pass a farm bill sends the nation's agricultural programs whirling back almost 50 years.

"The deadline was to pass a farm bill was, legally, Jan. 1," said Bill Thomas, an economist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"We are now facing a situation where a few Georgia crops, such as peanuts, cotton and dairy, have had some legislation that extends those programs through '96 or '97," Thomas said.

Federal law stipulates that failure to pass a new farm bill or vote an extension on the previous farm bill forces the 1949 Agricultural Act into law.

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has promised to reinstate the 1949 act if Congress doesn't approve a new farm policy by Feb. 15.

Under the 1949 act, support prices would be based on parity, which Glickman said would raise support prices to about $7.82 per bushel for wheat and $5.50 to $5.75 per bushel for corn -- far higher than Congress has ever authorized and almost twice the current market prices.

The final price-support rates would be set by the middle of April for wheat, barley and oats. At the same time, a decision would be made whether marketing allotments will be required for the 1997 wheat crop.

"Congress now has three options," Thomas said. "They can pass a farm bill with the rest of the budget package that will carry on for five to seven years; they can vote for a two-year extension on the previous farm bill, or they can vote a one-year extension."

Thomas' bet: a two-year extension.

"Most congressmen will be running for re-election this year," he said, "and they don't want to have to talk about a farm bill that has cuts when they're running for re-election."

While Congress continues its tug-of-war over cuts and spending in Washington, south Georgia farmers are getting ready to plant their fields in few weeks.

To make time even more of the essence, Congress was scheduled to break for winter recess Jan. 26 and won't return to Washington until Feb. 20.

"That's too late for many farmers," Thomas said.

Rep. Pat Roberts (R - Kan.), chairman of the House agriculture committee, introduced a Freedom to Farm Bill, which didn't get through during the original budget reconciliation process.

"He has made some changes to the peanut program that has made that acceptable to the Republican congressmen from Georgia," Thomas said. "Some of the other commodities, like dairy, aren't happy."

The Republican plan would give farmers wide power to pick the crops they grow and guarantee a payment for seven years. In exchange, farm funding would be cut by one-fifth, and there would be an annual cap -- the first ever -- on spending.

"We don't know if the 1996 farm bill will be this free- standing Freedom to Farm bill or a part of the budget reconciliation," Thomas said. "It's not about dollars now."

The main thrust in the budget considerations for the industry meant agriculture had to come up with $13.4 billion in savings.

"That's big to you and me, but not to Congress," Thomas said. "They're talking about a trillion dollars in expenditures over the next seven years."

Whatever they decide has to be done in the next few weeks before planting begins.

"After the law passes, it will take USDA another couple of weeks to write regulations," Thomas said. "The farmer will be sitting on his tractor in south Georgia waiting for someone to tell him the regulations before he can plant his crops."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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