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Md. agriculture community gets a say in planning for new federal farm bill

The Baltimore Sun

Early spring is when Bobby Hutchison grapples with deciding what crops he will plant on his 3,000-acre farm near Cordova in Talbot County.

But last week, Hutchison's attention was firmly fixed on Washington, where Congress is working on the 2007 farm bill. The legislation will drive federal farm policy for the next six years, looming as important to the economic viability of Hutchison's farm in the years ahead as the cooperation of Mother Nature.

So Hutchison took time from his farm chores to make sure his voice was heard in the legislative process. He was among the 100 Maryland farmers and other members of the agriculture community who descended upon Annapolis to attend a farm bill workshop presented by the Maryland Agricultural Commission.

"There's always work to do on the farm, but it is just as important to pay attention to the policy that governs our industry," Hutchison said.

The forum, held at the Maryland Agriculture Department, gave farmers the opportunity to critique the 2002 farm bill that expires in September, and to be advocates for what they want to see in the new legislation.

The farmers welcomed the chance.

"The current farm bill could be tweaked a bit, but it doesn't need an overhaul," Hutchison told commission members, state agriculture officials and representatives of national farm organizations.

The current policy provides a safety net through price-support programs that pay farmers when commodity prices drop below a certain level, he said.

"It worked for consumers," Hutchison said. "It produced an abundant food supply at affordable prices."

A leader in the farm community's efforts to open an ethanol production plant in Maryland, Hutchison does not want the federal government to interfere with the production of the alternative fuel.

Ethanol production boosted the price Maryland farmers received for corn last year by 75 cents a bushel, he said. The 40-cent-per-bushel increase in the price for barley and a $1 jump in soybean prices also was attributed to the increased demand for these grains in the production of ethanol, he said.

Bruce Gardner, a professor at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said farmers could argue that they are being cheated out of their share of federal farm support programs. Maryland accounted for 0.8 percent of the country's $240 billion farm sales last year but received only one half of 1 percent of the $20 billion the government paid out in support funds.

Maryland is not big in segments of agriculture that receive large support payments, such as rice and cotton, he said.

Poultry is the biggest segment of Maryland's farm economy, with chicken sales at the farm level totaling $565.2 million in 2005. This was roughly one-third of the state's farm sales.

"But poultry has no [federal] support," Gardner said.

The same is true for the greenhouse/nursery business, the state's second-largest sector.

Though state Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson wondered whether the new bill would provide more help to Maryland's struggling dairy industry, Gardner was not optimistic.

The government program that pays farmers a subsidy when milk prices are low is due to expire in six months, he said. Payments to dairy farmers were small, compared with those paid to farmers growing cotton. But what Maryland farmers received helped to pay the bills.

The payments are "not enough to keep dairy farmers in business," Gardner said. "But we hope the program is not eliminated."

Kenneth Bounds, a vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, a cooperative bank that is the state's largest farm lender, suggested a change in the federal Farm Service Agency's loan program designed to help young farmers.

A young person wanting to move into farming does not qualify for a low-interest federal loan unless he or she has three years of experience, he said.

"It's a case of what comes first, the chicken or the egg," Bounds said.

Several farmers said the government should retain the grain price-support program despite current high prices.

"That safety net is important -- $4 corn [per bushel] could become $2 corn pretty quick," Bounds said.

Richardson said he would include the farmers' suggestions from the forum in a letter he plans to send to each member of Maryland's congressional delegation.

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