Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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Source: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, Summer 2000 v55 i3 p246.

Title: Who will lead in the next farm bill debates?
Author: Jim Moseley

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2000 Soil & Water Conservation Society

How can conservation issues, and the funding necessary to address them, be brought to a higher profile with the public?

Unfortunately, instead of being concerned about conservation, most environmental groups have moved on to other concerns, focusing primarily on water quality in relation to pesticides and nutrients, and of course, endangered species. These issues are far easier to visually energize the public played on prime time TV than "common, ordinary conservation." There are no dynamic individuals pushing the conservation agenda forward.

"Ordinary conservation" depends on the quality of conservation leadership over the next two years as we work toward the most likely vehicle for conservation improvement--the 2002 farm bill adoption.

I served as Indiana's Director of Agriculture from 1993-1994. In that role I was affiliated with the National State Department of Agriculture (NASDA). During that time, NASDA, as an organization, decided to become more actively involved in the 1995 farm bill debate.

Historically NASDA hadn't played a significant role in the process, often acting only as a supporter of agricultural interests related to federal policy. However, there was an expressed desire on the part of the directors and secretaries from the 50 states that they indeed had a significant contribution that could be made, primarily because they represented a broad base of American agriculture in every state.

The point is that one group, who had historically avoided a leadership role in farm bill debates, but with a broad-based political interest, was able to have significant influence on directing the outcome of the final legislation.

The key question is, "Who will assume that position in the 2002 debate?" The answer is, "That remains to be seen." I'd like, however, to share some thoughts to pique your interest. Let's take a closer look a the potential players.

Potential Players

The environmental groups are void of leadership for the farm bill battles. The environmental community's primary issues now are nutrient overloading from corporate livestock farms, pesticides, and endangered species. They're more interested in legal challenges to existing laws, rather than writing new laws related to conservation. That's not to say that they won't be presenting their ideas, however they almost always maintain an adversarial relationship to the agricultural community and will, therefore, have difficulty influencing legislation with the Agricultural Committee. Their best opportunity comes from floor fights over amendments where they may be able to get enough votes to block something, but likely not pass anything new. I see them as having very little opportunity to coalesce with agriculture on anything; therefore, they will be mostly ineffective.

The conservation community--It is important to identify what makes up the "conservation community." It is not dear right now, who fits where. However, I think it will be important to be identified with the conservation community rather than with the environmental groups if one wants to accomplish much in the 2002 farm bill debate.

The agricultural community--there is no doubt that farmers will have significant influence on what happens with the overall farm bill. The issue will be, how much effort will they be willing to expend on the conservation title. If history repeats itself, the attention will be focused on the commodity title, primarily because that is where the direct dollars will come from. Or is it?

The point of Freedom to Farm was to phase our commodity programs in seven years. Theoretically, after 2002 the commodity title is no longer necessary. However, there will be strong arguments expressed that the "deal" to get Freedom to Farm accepted by the farming community was never finalized. So the question remains on whether a new commodity title will take place to continue to supplement farm income beyond 2002. Only a strong statement against reincarnating the existing commodity title by the respective Chairman of the Senate and House Ag committees will lower the expectations of the commodity and farm groups. Therefore, the only debate likely to take place will be on what type of commodity program, not whether there will be one. That debate will, in a very large way, distract the agricultural community from the conservation title discussion, but not from the dollars that could flow either way.

One of the fundamental concerns raised by some commodity groups in the 1995 debate was that federal budgeting was a zero sum game and any dollar that flowed to anything other than commodity programs was a political loss. I doubt if that mentality has changed.

The congress and administration--as usual, the wild card. The most significant thing about the farm bill is that it will be debated during an election year. That means that the politics surrounding the debate in farming country will be volatile, particularly if the farming economy is still in stress. I have learned to never try to predict what direction a Republican or Democrat dominated Congress might take. Talking heads get paid to make such predictions, and to be wrong. I do think however, that we will likely have a politically split congress, so the Administration will feasibly provide the political balance. Probably most important is who will Chair the agriculture committees on both sides of the Capital. The power of the Chair is not to promote legislation, but rather to block anything that is deemed undesirable to the interests of the majority. Therefore, it will be very important that whatever is forwarded as a conservation package be politically desirable to the committee majority. Which means it mus t have broad-based political support from agriculture. At the committee level, I am not too sure Democrat or Republican makes much difference. The real differences would doubtless surface at the time of a final full vote.

So, how does it all fit together?

I can not make concrete predictions because there are too many variables. However, I would risk making a few suggestions that seem to make some sense, if I was going to be actively involved.

First, identify the leadership. From my perspective there is a large void in conservation leadership. It is no one's fault; it just exists. And, it is more likely related to a person or a few people than to an organizational affiliation. The bottom line is that the void will get filled, with either good people with good ideas, or political hacks looking to make a name in history. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for individuals currently active in the conservation arena to provide solid leadership that moves toward better policies. Lacking that solid leadership, little of the positive will happen.

Second, I would start my planning now and be ready to present ideas publicly by the fall of 2001. There are those that will say that all you are doing is giving the opposition the target to shoot at, but my experience is that if you have done good work, it can be just the target that the policy process may eventually shoot for.

Third, do your homework. Understand the "on the ground" impact of the policy proposals you are making. Engage those most affected by conservation to actively participate in your development--and LISTEN TO THEM.

I have seen agency people exhibit great pride over a program they have developed and then forget that nothing happens until it goes on the ground. There are those that are doing good work in conservation at the ground level that well understand the impact that policies, and the subsequent federal/state programs to implement that policy, may have on their decision-making process. They can be invaluable in helping make determinations as to the viability of various policy options. I frequently comment that the most valuable public policy decision-making time I spent while I was at USDA was in my pickup truck back home on weekends, driving around on the land I was trying to help protect, and talking with farmers. That replanted my feet on the ground with respect to the "do-ability" of what I listened to all week. I would encourage you to consider similar involvement in developing and testing your policy ideas before going public. Otherwise, you are likely to receive undesirable results on potentially good ideas because you missed a few details that will derail your plans.

And fourth, make a decision of whether you want to fight or coalesce. One of the lessons from Politics 101 is that politicians abhor making a choice between two constituencies. How often I remember Senators and Members telling me that if you want it to happen, go work it out with the parties of disagreement and then bring it back for them to vote. That way it is a win-win situation for them and almost always, you will get what you want. I don't know if this can be done between the conservation and the agriculture communities, but I do know to not try would be a mistake.

Conservationists need farmers and ranchers to meet their objectives, and farmers and ranchers need conservationists to help them with their public image. The biggest concern that the public has about modern farming is the negative environmental impact it can have. While farmers still carry a romanticized image with the public that generates a general feeling of good will, the image has been tarnished in the past 10-15 years by a constant challenge expressed by the environmental community.

We will not continue to enjoy that good will, which still is measured in government financial support, unless we polish that tarnish away. In fact, I've heard it considered that government support may even come in the form of "payments to perform" in the area of conservation practices rather than commodity programs. I think that will eventually be a significant mechanism for farm income enhancement; I just don't know when it will finally become politically acceptable to the farm groups. I do believe that it is likely the most desirable way to attract the general public's interest to continue to support agriculture. A little creativity in getting the conservation and farm groups working together could reap large benefits for both.

Time will tell.

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