Hardest hit by weather – dry last fall, bitter cold last winter, has been the Kansas wheat crop. The government estimates as much as a million acres of Kansas wheat have been abandoned by farmers, leaving the state with the fewest number of acres to harvest since 1957. Total production is expected to be 18 percent lower this year than last.
In anticipation of the financial stress in Kansas as well as elsewhere in farm country, congress has already set aside more than 5 billion dollars worth of emergency relief. That amount is not likely to be reduced. But the focus of government farm programs could change.
While the composition of the U.S. congress has not changed, this week the shift of a single member's affiliation in the Senate could well produce a sea change to the body's agenda.
Realizing that he disagreed with the fundamental tenants of the Republican Party, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords ended a 26-year affiliation with the party of Lincoln.
Jeffords' decision also appears to have been spurred by a number of signals sent out by the Grand Old Party, including the prospect that the Bush Administration would retaliate for the Vermont Senator's opposition to the White House tax and energy plans. The expected vehicle for the White House reprisal was rumored to be Jefford's Northeast Dairy compact--a controversial pricing package, which has helped dampen wide swings in the farm-gate price of bulk milk and delivered New England farmers a premium price for their commodity.
But Jeffords' move to Independent status has further repercussions for rural Americans above and beyond the shift in the thin margin of power now held by Senate Democrats. The action will undoubtedly change the fundamental focus of any farm bill deliberations. Current chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana has proposed more traditional Republican notions of reform ... expanded trade, tax relief, risk management and regulatory changes.
But the new chairman is Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. Harkin's plan will almost certainly tie government payments to conservation efforts. In fact, the farm state Senator has already introduced the Conservation Security Act, which would create a three-tiered scale of payments to farmers based on the type of conservation practices they employ. Further, it is likely Harkin will spearhead a move to cap the amount of government assistance payments to producers and to make farm legislation broad-based, addressing the needs of main street as well as farmers.
It is expected that Harkin along with some of his senate colleagues, who describe themselves as prairie populists, will speed up deliberations of the next farm bill.
A stickier challenge for Harkin et al is government dairy policy. While Jeffords and fellow Vermonter Democrat Senator Patrick Leahey favor the continuation and expansion of the New England dairy compact, many Midwestern dairy producers do not. Those opponents acknowledge the compact pays New England producers more, but argue it does so at the expense of other producers whose access to New England markets is limited by the compact.