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The waiting game

FARGO - Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., says farmers in the northern states should oppose any one- or two-year extension of the current multi-year farm bill, if a new 2007 farm bill isn't struck.

FARGO - Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., says farmers in the northern states should oppose any one- or two-year extension of the current multi-year farm bill, if a new 2007 farm bill isn't struck.

"I've been trying to talk that down," Peterson said, speaking to a large group of farmers at the North Dakota Ag Expo and trade show, held at the Fargodome, which started Wednesday and continues through today. The multi-year bill under-girds the region's agricultural economy - a safety net against poor prices. The topic drew hundreds of listeners from the thousands of show-goers.

Peterson repeated much of what he said during a visit to Thief River Falls on Monday.

Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, warned that if Congress fails to pass a new farm bill into law, one possibility is an "extension" of the current bill. That is bound to include shifts of funds from commodity support programs to conservation and food stamp areas. "We probably have until March before this becomes critical," Peterson said. "I'm not sure an extension can pass."

Peterson said that without passing either the bills or an extension, the country goes back to "permanent law," from 1949, which is based on so-called "parity" values for crops, which would mean far higher levels of support, which throw U.S. supports out of whack with the world."


He complimented Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who was billed as a speaker for the event, but was unable to attend because of a conflict. Conrad sent his North Dakota state staff director, Scott Stofferahn, in his stead. "Without him taking the role I did in the House, they wouldn't have gotten the bill out of the Senate," Peterson said. "I give Kent a lot of credit."

He noted the bill came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee with almost unanimous support, with the exception of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a critic who wasn't there for the vote. The big differences between the two versions are that a number of things financed 10 years in the House bill are only financed five years in the Senate bill. "I think that's a problem in the end, a big issue."

When the Senate passes its version, Peterson said he'll ask to sit down with President Bush, "just him and I," to figure out "what we have to do to get this done, and I think we can do that."

Peterson says the Senate is trying to get the amendments to the farm bill down from some 300 now proposed, to down to 15 or less, so they have floor time to consider the bill.

Big divider

Stofferahn, a key staffer in the farm bill for Conrad, listed numerous proposed amendments, without taking aim at the Dorgan/Grassley amendments, and said the worst among them might be immigration reform. "If you want to put an anchor around a bill, load it up with immigration," Stofferahn said.

Liberal and conservative critics of the farm bill use the same rhetoric - statements like 66 percent of the money goes to the top 10 percent of the beneficiaries. The administration criticizes budgeting for farm supports when crop prices and returns are high.

"The fact of the matter is, all the things we're doing in the farm bill support prices when they drop - not when they're up at these levels," Stofferahn said.


Stofferahn said the USDA's Economic Research Service says farmers with gross sales of $50,000 and more represent only 23 percent of the 2 million U.S. farmers. Those farmers are responsible for more than 90 percent of all U.S. ag production, and their government supports account for 81 percent of the total payments.

"One thing we cannot afford is to be divided," Peterson said. "Some of these (proposed) amendments are meant to divide farmers, so they can take us apart."

Peterson mentioned payment limits as one of those issues.

"Up in this part of the world, that payment limit thing looks good, but you're not going to get any support" if the amendment Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are offering is adopted. President George Bush is focused on payment limits as well, Peterson said.

"And if you divide the South and the North, that's the end. There won't be a farm program," Peterson said, emphasizing he has a way of dealing with the issue, especially as it relates to getting nonfarmers out of the farm program.

"That should have been done a long time ago," he said, noting that all secretaries of agriculture have had the authority to eliminate non-farmers since 1987, but "none of them have chosen to do it."

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