(Jan. 21) NEW ORLEANS — The best of economic times for many growers didn’t translate into a standing ovation for acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner at the conclusion of his address to the 89th annual Farm Bureau convention.

Conner received polite applause and a few whistles after he finished delivering what he conceded was a “stern message” to delegates Jan. 13 at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting.

Noting record and near-record exports and prices for major U.S. farm commodities in 2007 and another strong year projected in 2008, Conner said growers had much to be optimistic about.

From the tone of his message, however, growers should be pessimistic that President Bush will agree to any farm bill remotely close to the bills produced by the House and the Senate last year. A farm bill conference committee will soon begin work on producing a harmonized farm bill, but Conner said a simple compromise between the House and Senate versions won’t work.

Unlike in previous farm bills — when the produce industry received little if any mandatory funding from the farm bill — the stakes are big in this farm bill.

Specialty crop industry priorities were funded at about $2 billion over five years in the Senate version and about $1.6 billion over five years in the House version.

Conner insisted that both have unacceptable budget gimmicks and tax increases — and too few needed reforms for farm program payments.

“What they do is simply shift liabilities, or accelerate payments, from one year to another getting what in effect is a budget savings on paper but without actually reducing the taxpayer dollars being spent,” he said.

The Senate version of the farm bill would increase overall spending by $37 billion through a series of accounting tricks and tax increases, he said.

“In our opinion, this is not acceptable farm policy,” he said.

Conner called for “courage and common sense” by the House and Senate farm bill conference members to deliver a more reform-minded farm bill to the White House this year.

The top Farm Bureau leader said Conner’s words carried ominous meaning for growers.

“I think the administration is serious about the vetoing the farm bill,” American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said Jan. 14.

While the Washington, D.C.-based Farm Bureau gave Conner a polite reception, Stallman said growers are becoming increasing frustrated with veto threats — particularly if those threats impede progress of getting a new farm bill delivered this year.

Stallman said Farm Bureau members believe Congress and the administration fund what they want to fund and “figure out excuses” when they don’t want to fund something. Whether generating revenue to pay for a farm bill is described as closing a tax loophole or creating a new tax, Farm Bureau members don’t care.

“They want resolution and a farm bill on the ground,” he said.

A short-term extension for the farm bill expires March 15.

Stallman said meeting the stringent budget demands of the White House is another matter. That could cause lawmakers to make a time-consuming re-examination of every aspect of the legislation.

Stallman said Farm Bureau generally supports funding for conservation, nutrition and specialty crop priorities but said the commodity title and crop insurance have taken the only reductions to date in farm bill spending.

More cuts to the commodity title and crop insurance won’t be received well by Farm Bureau, he warned.