By Tom Karst for The Packer

The Bush administration will not "paint a bull's-eye" on the back of the American farmer, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in an address to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Outlook Forum on March 1.

Johanns said World Trade Organization challenges to U.S. farm program means changes are necessary to the 2007 farm bill.

One of those proposed changes -- included in the administration's farm bill proposal released Jan. 31 -- has come under fire from produce industry advocates. The administration has proposed to eliminate the long-standing fruit and vegetable planting restriction on program crop acres. The planting restriction is at risk because of WTO objections in a case brought by Brazil against U.S. cotton subsidies.

"We will vigorously defend our programs before anyone, but it makes no sense to stick with policies that worry us," Johanns said.

In his keynote address, Johanns said 52 farm bill listening sessions have helped to produce more evenhanded farm bill proposals.

"Specialty crops are a much more important part of agricultural production, even with the recent run up in grain prices, sales value is very close to the five traditional program crops," Johanns said. "I personally believe it is time we give them a more equitable farm bill," he said.

Johanns highlighted the importance of biofuels to the surge in corn prices and farm policy in general.

"This is a bedrock change. An acre of farm land just sold for $6,000, a record," Johanns said. "I grew up on an Iowa farm, and now I wonder if I zigged when I should have zagged," he said.

 

ECONOMIC ESTIMATES

Meanwhile, USDA chief economist Keith Collins said that the administration has no dollar estimate of the value of the fruit and vegetable planning restriction on flex acres of program crops. He said the USDA Economic Research Service did study the issue but assigned no dollar values to the planting restriction.

Generally, Collins said the USDA study shows the effect on fruit and vegetable prices would be "modest," with dry beans and potatoes likely to experience a bigger effect than other crops.

Collins said the reason the price effect would be fairly modest is that a substantial amount of fruits and vegetable are produced on farms that report program crop acreage to the USDA. Program crop growers have figured out how to grow fruit and vegetables without losing their benefits, Collins noted.