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Farm bill seeds hope

May 28, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Some Tri-State area farmers are expressing optimism about the 2002 farm bill just passed by Congress despite uncertainty about how and when new agricultural programs outlined in the bill will be implemented.

"I see it as an overall good thing for the farmer in the long run," said Williamsport dairy farmer Greg Wiles. "It will help grain farmers and protect the dairy industry, consumers and the environment."

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 authorizes about $190 billion in agriculture-related spending over the next decade.

President Bush signed the bill on May 13, increasing the cost of government agricultural subsidies by about $83 billion.

The bill's dairy provisions might help Waynesboro, Pa., farmer Jack Martin stay in business despite low milk prices and high production costs, he said.

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The bill guarantees Martin money on every dollar that milk prices drop below $16.94 per hundred weight, he said.

The formula used to calculate the subsidy will help small family farmers like Martin, who milks about 170 cows, without "lining the pockets" of large producers because it caps the volume of milk marketed, he said.

The bill will help Martin pay for land conservation and test his herd for a potentially devastating cattle disease. It will force importers to contribute to domestic advertising costs and to label their dairy products so U.S. consumers know what they're buying, Martin said.

"It's not going to be a fix-all, but it's a good start," he said. "It will definitely help."

Farm bill provisions

The farm bill contains record-level support for environmental stewardship, a commitment to renewable fuels programs, additional investments to help expand international markets, rural community programs and food stamp assistance for low-income Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman recently lauded the bill for:

n Providing a strong safety net for farmers over the next six years.

n Providing record-level support for conservation programs to preserve wetlands and improve soil and water quality on working farms.

n Providing support for food stamp and nutrition programs.

n Helping to expand trade for U.S. food and agriculture products overseas.

n Containing an energy title to help examine new uses for agriculture as an energy source.

n Investing more in research, value-added programs, animal and plant disease protections, food safety and rural development.

The Maryland Farm Bureau has called the bill "a victory for farmers and ranchers, consumers, the environment and the rural economy," according to state Farm Bureau Director of Government Relations Valerie T. Connelly.

The bill provides producers several types of payments and loans to help them survive sustained periods of low commodity prices and soaring production costs, Connelly said.

"It brings some new money to Maryland and to some farmers who weren't eligible for funding under the old farm bill," she said.

Tri-State benefits

Orchardists, cattle farmers and some other producers in Berkeley County, W.Va., anticipate increased levels of support from the bill, said Bill Bennett, county executive director of the Farm Service Agency.

"They think there was enough money put into it to help a lot of aspects of agriculture that weren't really helped by the 1996 farm bill," Bennett said.

Many dairy farmers in Franklin County, Pa., are also encouraged by what they've heard about the new bill, said Tom Kerr, county executive director of that county's Farm Service Agency.

"It's going to affect practically all the producers in Franklin County. This county's big dairy. That's what they're interested in here," Kerr said.

The bill is retroactive to December 2001 but it will be months before farmers reap its benefits, House Agricultural Committee Spokesman Keith Williams said.

"Nobody knows for sure yet how it's going to be carried out," said Don Schwartz, Maryland Cooperative Extension agent for Washington County.

The USDA, which will administer the sweeping programs framed in the new law, must dissect the complex legislation to write regulations and train county agriculture agents, Williams said.

"We just have no way yet to know how to administer the programs," said Colleen Cashell, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Washington County.

Spreading the word

The USDA is developing and sending to county offices new software to aid in updating producer information, meeting with representatives of farm and commodity organizations, and developing informational materials about new programs, according to the USDA Web site.

The agency has created a comprehensive farm bill Web site at www.usda.gov/farmbill that is updated regularly, Williams said.

The Web site includes:

n 2002 farm bill program details and comparisons to the 1996 farm bill.

n Frequently asked questions and answers.

n Program applications and electronic forms to help reduce processing time.

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