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Little policy tweaking at Commodity Classic

By Larry Dreiling

It's usually at Commodity Classic where the four groups hosting the event, representing the corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum farmers of the nation, get together and hammer out policy for the next year to present to Congress and the administration.

This year, with government practically at a standstill, sequestration looming, and in the wake of last year's failure of the House to pass a farm bill, the groups did only a little tweaking to their policy resolutions.

Probably the biggest alteration came from the American Soybean Association, which promised that there might be changes in their policy soon after leaving Orlando, Fla.

The changes came about a week later, when ASA announced it would support an extension of the current Counter-Cyclical Payment plan.

ASA also voted to continue to support the Supplemental Coverage Option included in both the House and Senate versions of last year's farm bills as a complement to federal crop insurance. ASA will support offering a choice between "higher options" for these two programs, recognizing that producers in different growing regions have different priorities for protecting farm income.

SCO will provide revenue protection at the county level and is more defensible, an ASA news release said, because, like crop insurance, it requires farmers to pay part of the cost of the premium.

"ASA strongly supported the Agricultural Risk Coverage program in the Senate bill last year as an effective risk management tool designed to work with crop insurance," ASA President Danny Murphy said. "However, because of ARC's higher cost and the need to find additional savings in the farm bill, we have decided to support updating and extending the CCP program included in current law."

Murphy, a soybean farmer from Canton, Miss., added, "The decoupled CCP allows producers to respond to market signals rather than government programs in making their planting decisions, which has been a key priority for ASA during the farm bill debate. It also provides a safety net against several years of low prices, which has been important to supporters of the House bill."

What set ASA into this different path was the release of a report by the Congressional Budget Office just a couple of days after the conclusion of Commodity Classic that found both the 2012 Senate and House farm bills to be more expensive than estimated last year. While the savings required for deficit reduction under any congressional budget agreement have yet to be determined, the Agriculture Committees would need to find an additional $8 to $10 billion to achieve the same level of savings provided under their original bills.

Even as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had been speaking prior to the Commodity Classic about the lost political relevance of the agriculture sector, the vice president for public policy at the National Corn Growers' Association was preparing to show some of the data he gleaned from the November elections that proved Vilsack's point.

In a presentation titled, "Changing Demographics of the Electorate: Implications for Agriculture," Jon Doggett discussed the ramifications of the recent U.S. census, what it meant for redistricting and changes for agriculture. Doggett's presentation was held during NCGA's Issues Forum held the day prior to Corn Congress.

"In 2013, regional issues exist, but that's not the big problem," Doggett said. "The big issue revolves around SNAP, the food stamp program. There are 11 new members on the House Agriculture Committee on the Democratic side of the aisle. It shows you that we have no more moderate Democrats representing rural America. We have very, very few. We're down from 56 Democratic members to under 20 in just two elections.

"So we don't have people like Leonard Boswell and a lot of other folks like him. What we have are a lot of urban and suburban members and they are there to protect their constituents. They don't necessarily have a problem with production agriculture. They're there to represent their constituents and we have been meeting with them. They are listening to the message we are bringing to them. But we are going to have to do a lot of work with them."

A grassroots committee of growers and staff has commissioned a study to examine the changing demographics of the electorate, Doggett said, to be finalized in the next month, with a webinar on the subject for growers so they will be able to see what the study says.

In a preliminary release of the data from the study, Doggett said 90 percent of the group's membership comes from 12 states. Collectively, those states have 97 members of Congress, meaning not enough votes to effectively move legislation.

"It means we need every vote out of Illinois in Chicago, or of Wisconsin including Milwaukee or in Ohio, where we need Cleveland and Speaker Boehner's district near Cincinnati," Doggett said.

"Even if we get all of them, it's just 97 votes," Doggett said. "This is showing the slow erosion, or in some cases fast erosion, of what redistricting has done in the last five censuses as we've seen diminished representation from corn states.

"We're outnumbered."

Just 8 percent, or 34 districts, of the 435 congressional districts, represent a 50 percent or higher rural constituency. Thirty-nine percent, or 168 districts have a 15 to 50 percent rural constituency, while 53 percent or 233 districts are considered urban.

"We just continue to see the shrinkage, particularly in the last three censuses," Doggett said. "This will be a continuing problem for us."

In 1940, there were 6.1 million farms while the last census indicated just 2.1 million farms. In 1940, agriculture represented 7.3 percent of the private economy. In 1970 it was 3.5 percent while in 2011 it was 1.3 percent.

"Agriculture remains important," Doggett said. "It's important we are aware of this and can work to do something about it."

Doggett also noted the increasing ethnic diversity of the country, such as when, in 1940, 90 percent of the electorate was white. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 50 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of farmers remains at over 95 percent.

"I'm not saying we can't work with people of other races and ethnicities," Doggett said. "We can, but we need to be aware that this is what the rest of the country is looking like so we can address and deal with the issues we have to do."

Doggett told the group they need to be more engaged with Congress, to not just show up at meetings NCGA schedules for them.

"Don't just show up in July and for an 'ask,'" Doggett said. "We need to work with others and with more people outside agriculture--a lot more. We need to give something to get something."

The biggest thing farmers could do, Doggett said, to help NCGA would be to grow a really large crop. That way, it would be more influential in Washington.

He also commented on the situation in Washington and on where blame should be placed.

"I've been in Washington 25 years and I've never seen the unseemly kind of debate and discussion and polarization as I've seen in Washington lately, "Doggett said. "It isn't one party's fault. It isn't the administration's fault. It isn't the Congress's fault. It's everybody's fault. I think it's our fault since we sent those knuckleheads to Washington in the first place."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

Date: 3/25/2013



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