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Farm Bill extension wanted

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson speaks with Gene Dement.
SIKESTON -- Southeast Missouri farmers want to extend the current Farm Bill, and they want the next one to be just like it.

That was the main message U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson received from about 70 commodity group representatives and agricultural producers during a listening session Monday morning at the Clinton Building in Sikeston.

Emerson used the session to prepare for the House Agriculture Committee hearings on the new Farm Bill, which will begin in 2007.

"I wanted to have this meeting and make sure everybody was thinking along the same lines I was," Emerson said. "And that's really absolutely critical."

Assisting Emerson in fielding questions were state Department of Agriculture Director Fred Ferrell and Missouri Farm Bureau representative Gary Branum.

Emerson began the session by highlighting President Bush's proposed fiscal year 2007 budget, which includes a 5 percent cut in all livestock and commodity programs. It also includes a cap on federal farm program payments at $250,000 per year per individual.

Emerson told the group right now Congress is fighting about extending the Farm Bill for another year or two until the World Trade Organization negotiations are completed.

"The Senate agriculture chairman wants to extend, and the House agriculture chairman doesn't want to extend," Emerson said. "I think I'm the only Republican, so far, who's actually signed onto legislation to extend the Farm Bill."

Formal hearings on the new Farm Bill began last week, and Emerson said she anticipates they'll go through most of the rest of the year.

"If possible, make the new Farm Bill like the old Farm Bill," said farmer Dan Jennings of Sikeston.

Other farmers like Mike Geske of Matthews, who is also a board member of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, agreed most farmers are pretty much satisfied with the Farm Bill.

"But I don't think they realize the stress put on farmers by energy prices," Geske said referring to the skyrocketing fuel prices over the past year.

Geske also expressed concern over the existing crop insurance program.

"It doesn't work in the Bootheel. The rates are unaffordable," Geske said. Under the 2002 Farm Bill, in order to get government payment, farmers had to only buy catastrophic coverage, Emerson explained.

"And now they're saying 50 percent has to be covered. And that's just totally unrealistic," Emerson said. "Crop insurance works when you have all of the farm in one area. In Southeast Missouri, we have a farm here, and a farm a mile down the road so it's very hard to cover that with crop insurance. And it's very, very expensive."

Emerson said maybe the best thing to do would be to come up with some kind of product that would actually help farmers and wouldn't be too expensive.

Emerson noted over the next three months, illegal immigration will be a hot topic of discussion in Washington.

"I get more individual letters on this than anything," Emerson said, adding it's a touchy subject in the Eighth District.

Agriculture has a unique situation, Emerson said.

"How do you grade a situation where you have a group of farm workers who come here legally under a guest worker program and go home for the time they're not working here?"

Emerson asked the group how they felt about a guest worker permit program or a special category for agriculture to prevent illegal immigration.

"The problem is too many U.S. citizens are too lazy to work," said farmer Mike Smody of Neelyville. "These people who come from underprivileged nations come here, and they work hard. I don't think anybody could work harder, and they are more trustworthy and do more work than anyone else."

At Emerson's probing, Smody said he would be willing to do a little more extra paper work for a permit program.

"We couldn't operate without Mexican workers. Our big problem is with the U.S. government. We've got too many on the U.S. payroll checking for illegal Mexicans," one farmer said.

Emerson polled the audience, asking how many would be in favor of such a program. About a third raised their hands. When Emerson asked if anyone would oppose the program, no one raised a hand.

"People programs are destroying labor," said local farmer George Simmons. "Stop them from living off the government and make them get so hungry, they have to go back to work."

The United States should stand up and make programs work, Simmons said. "Sometimes government gets in the way. They should leave operators alone so they can operate," Simmons said.

Emerson said Simmons raised a lot of valid points. A lot have taken advantage of programs, but there are those who need assistance, she said.

"Preserving our rural way of life and also producing the safest most abundant food and fiber anywhere in the world is absolutely critical to our economic well being in this part of the state," Emerson said.

Preservation must be coupled with value-added products like ethanol and biodiesel, which are very important for the future of Missouri agriculture, Emerson said. "And we'll have an opportunity to do all that as we write the next Farm Bill."