Congress Plows Fresh Ground With New Farm Bill Sweeping Legislation Weans Farmers From Federal Payments Over Seven Years

After 14 months of hog-tied inaction in Congress, the sight of American farmers moving quietly into the fields for spring planting forced politicians to abandon their differences and deliver a sweeping new farm bill.

The historic $47 billion measure, given final approval by Congress early today, dumps Depression-era subsidy programs in favor of a grand experiment on 1.8 million American farmers - fixed but declining payments over seven years.

The House passed the bill 318-89 shortly before 1 a.m. EST, hours after Senate approval by a 74-26 vote.

The deal will wean farmers from taxpayer-supported subsidies by 2002, giving them years to adjust to doing business in the free market with no government price supports. Supporters say the bill also will stimulate the rural economy by increasing crop production and opening export markets, while lowering food prices for consumers.

But the change comes at the risk of inviting criticism from urban politicians who consider the guaranteed payments “farm welfare” because farmers are paid regardless of the price of wheat, barley, corn, rice and cotton. Wheat prices currently are soaring above $5 a bushel, $1 more than what the government considers a break-even mark.

“Producers are relieved it’s over,” said Gretchen Borck, issues director for the Ritzville-based Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “They’re out there farming right now on good faith.”

Final passage of the 600-page Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act ends a marathon debate that began in January 1995.

Republicans were eager to cut farm subsidies to help balance the budget while Democrats were concerned that the new scheme would leave no cushion for farmers who fall on hard times.

President Clinton said he will reluctantly sign the bill.

Passage of the bill comes just in time for spring planting. The urgency to provide farmers - and the banks that lend them money - some financial certainty compelled many opponents, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to support the bill.

“I do hate this bill,” Murray said. “Ultimately in my guts I believe it goes the wrong direction, but I also know that farmers need a farm bill. Just hanging out there voting no wasn’t going to give them that certainty.”

Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, praised the bill, saying it gives farmers regulatory relief and frees them to increase their incomes.

“Producers will have control over their farm,” he said.

But Judy Olson, former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers and a Democratic candidate for Nethercutt’s seat, said she was “disappointed” in the bill because it leaves farmers vulnerable to sudden drops in prices and crop disasters.

The bill continues the Conservation Reserve Program at the current level of 36.4 million acres. CRP is a favorite of farmers and environmentalists that pays landowners to idle highly erodible land.

The bill also extends agricultural research programs and the food stamp program for two years until changes can be proposed.

Analysts said chemical companies, implement dealers and other farm suppliers may benefit from the bill because it opens up more acres for production and permits farmers to plant any crop other than fruits and vegetables.

Those restrictions were abandoned in hopes that U.S. agriculture would take advantage of growing export markets.

Yet the bill makes no guarantee that Congress or the State Department will not meddle in farmers’ business.

The bill requires Congress to revisit the farm program in 2002 or return to the highly regulated and expensive Agricultural Act of 1949. It also establishes an 11-member commission to monitor the agricultural economy during the seven-year transition.

Central to the new bill are “transition payments” - fixed but declining sums paid to growers of major crops such as corn, wheat, cotton and rice.

Inland Northwest wheat farmers will receive about 90 cents a bushel on 85 percent of their production during the past five years. The payment rate will drop to about 65 cents next year, declining each year through 2002.

Sign-up for the new program likely will begin in May. Farmers will get half their payment 30 days later; the rest by Sept. 30, according to Nethercutt.

Beginning next year, the first payment will be made Sept. 30; final payment Dec. 15 or later.

, DataTimes

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