LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas – Two members of the U.S. Senate's agriculture committee from southern states have vowed to fight proposed cuts in farm subsidies, despite resistance from urban lawmakers and other countries.
"The fact is, there are fewer and fewer members of Congress representing rural states or districts that depend on an agriculturally based economy, not to mention fewer and fewer members of Congress that actually have a direct relationship with production agriculture," said Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat.
Lincoln, a farmer's daughter, and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, whose son-in-law is a farmer, spoke Wednesday at a farm bill forum sponsored by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the renewal of the farm bill might entail a battle with the Bush administration, but that Congress ultimately will decide what to fund.
The current farm bill, written in 2002, expires Sept. 30.
A proposal released last month by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns would cut agriculture spending by $18 billion (euro13.7 billion) over the next five years.
The Bush administration's plan would cost $87.3 billion (euro66.4 billion) over the next five years, not counting food stamps and other nutrition programs, compared to $105 billion spent on farm programs over the past five years.
Most payments go to growers of five major crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton.
Lincoln said many nations oppose subsidies for U.S. farmers, arguing that they make trade between countries unfair. Lincoln said the U.S. market is open to foreign agricultural goods, but that "changes must occur in places other than just the United States."
The U.S. needs to deal with trade issues with foreign countries before cutting subsidies to farmers, Lincoln said. Otherwise, the U.S. would have no leverage in trade negotiations, she said.
Under the Bush proposal, anyone making more than $200,000 (euro152,000) in adjusted gross income would not be eligible for farm payments. The cap is now set at $2.5 million (euro1.9 million).
Cecil Williams, former executive vice president for the Agricultural Council of Arkansas, said the administration's "idiotic proposal" to lower the income cap "would kill this area up and down the Mississippi River."
Chambliss and Lincoln said they will fight moves to lower the income cap, noting that crops grown in the South cost more to produce than other commodities.
"Two hundred thousand dollars to the average guy is a lot of money," Chambliss said. "But what we in agriculture know is, $200,000 (euro152,000) in adjusted gross income means once you get to that point, then you've got to pay for that $250,000 (euro190,000) combine, that $100,000 (euro76,000) tractor that you've got to have to operate your facilities."
Chambliss said reducing the income cap was "intended to strike at Southeastern agriculture."
"I don't know of a farmer in Georgia that has 500 acres (200 hectares) in cultivation that probably wouldn't have hit that threshold, and that's a small farm in Arkansas or Georgia. Unfortunately, some of these policymakers have no concept of what it's like when you're out there having to get dirt under your fingernails and driving a tractor.
"We have to remind those policymakers and those bureaucrats sometimes that there are real people out there farming every single day that have to face these practical problems."