Faced with the prospect of refunding their farm subsidies this year, many Washington wheat growers have joined a growing number of agricultural interests asking Congress to convert the federal farm program to a flat, guaranteed payment.
The seven-year plan, known on Capitol Hill as the Freedom to Farm Act of 1995, has been touted by House Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., as a less expensive alternative to the nation’s $10 billion farm program.
Freedom to Farm is nothing more than a three-page proposal floated in recent weeks to agricultural groups. But as Robert’s committee heads toward a Sept. 22 deadline to produce a farm bill that saves $13.4 billion over seven years, the plan is gaining momentum.
“It has legs,” said committee spokeswoman Jackie Cattrell. “It’s the only thing that’s dramatically new and different” from the old program.
The proposal, however, could upset congressional leaders who criticize subsidies as “farm welfare.”
That’s because the plan would eliminate government control of crop production and pay farmers the same amount regardless of what they plant or how much.
“It’ll make some think we’re welfare recipients, but what the heck, most people think that already,” said Jack Silzel, an Oakesdale wheat and hog producer and vice president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
WAWG hasn’t taken an official position on Freedom to Farm, but Silzel said many growers favor the plan. He joined Idaho and Oregon farmers two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on the proposal. The National Grain and Feed Association also prefers the plan.
Farmers find the proposal appealing because it reduces government paperwork while guaranteeing an annual payment - something that’s become important this year. Under current law, farmers for the first time ever may be forced to refund millions in advance subsidies to the government because wheat prices are higher than government targets.
The Freedom to Farm payment would eliminate that threat. Payments would be based on a percentage of the subsidies paid the past five years. An exact percentage has not been determined and lawmakers are undecided whether farm subsidies would continue beyond the seven-year span.
Since it started 10 years ago, the current program has cost taxpayers $8 billion to $26 billion a year.