USDA Secretary of Agriculture wouldn't give an exact date when pressed for information on when the Bush Administration would release their '07 Farm Bill recommendations during an appearance at the Grow America Project conference in Indianapolis on Thursday. But he did promise that when their recommendations are released, they will be specific.
"You won't be left wondering what Mike Johanns was thinking because a recommendation is vague," he says. "We plan to address a number of areas, but our strategy is to be specific in our recommendations."
When pressed, he hinted their recommendations could come as early as mid-January, or as late as early February. He also implied that it is still undecided as to whether they will offer them up as a complete package to Congress.
Johanns personally attended more than 20 farm bill listening sessions across the country in '05. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner also held a number of sessions. In all nearly 50 sessions were held.
"We heard agreement on many issues, and then there was a wide variety of opinion on some issues," he says. "There was no better way for me to get a sense of what farmers were thinking than to get out of the Beltway through these sessions."
"Conservation programs (in previous farm bills) are popular," he says. "There was good agreement on that point. We also heard many, many people tell us that our rural development efforts were helping meet the challenges in rural America. Whether it's a new hospital or helping a local community in some other way, we really seem to be making a difference there."
The Secretary recalled that he also heard a lot about trade during the sessions, and continues to hear about it today. "One in three acres planted in the U.S. go to export," he says. "One out of every five corn rows go to export. Our production ability is rising about 2% per year, but U.S. population and consumption rise less than 1% per year. And 95% of the people in the world live outside the U.S. So we understand that trade is very important. We are striving for free market access for our products."
Where there wasn't agreement during the listening sessions and still isn't today is on the subject of farm subsidies. While Farm Service Agency staff breathe a sigh of relief since higher crop prices mean they're not handling many LDPs this fall, at least so far, the swing in prices still hasn't brought unity on the subsidy issue.
"We hear mixed reviews," Johanns says. "Some farmers tell us to keep subsidies just as they were in the '02 Farm Bill. But others say we need changes."
Nearly 60% of all those classed as farmers aren't getting subsidy payments, he reports. That's because they're raising specialty crops that don't qualify for subsidies.
"Even now specialty crop producers aren't asking for subsidies," he adds. "What they want is more research on food safety and marketing."
Expect many of these areas to be addressed when Johanns unveils USDA recommendations later this winter.