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Part 2: Presidential Candidates Answer My Questions

00:00AM Oct 10, 2008

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Second of two parts on how McCain and Obama size up key issues

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

I recently submitted some questions to presidential candidates John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Today is part two of a two-part series on how the presidential candidates responded. I will have my comments on the candidates' responses in a future dispatch.

Question: On a basic farm policy level, are you in favor of or opposed to price supports and/or subsidies to producers, not only in the U.S. but abroad? If so, why? If not, why not? (NOTE: Sen. McCain opted to combine the first four questions with one response which follows Sen. Obama's answers to these questions.)

Obama: “I support a robust safety net that targets assistance appropriately and provides farmers with risk mitigation tools that protect them from weather and market conditions that are beyond their control. This includes traditional farm programs, crop insurance and disaster assistance. I supported the 2008 Farm Bill and both the bill’s Permanent Disaster Program (SURE) and the new revenue counter-cyclical program, the Average Crop Revenue Program (ACRE). On the other hand, John McCain, as recently as October 1, 2008, said he would abolish all agricultural support programs.

“American farmers and ranchers provide the world's most plentiful, safest and secure food supply. Agriculture however is a risky business, one in which producers often face risks that are outside of their control. I therefore believe that a government provided safety net is both necessary and appropriate to protect our national security.

“As for the rest of the world, many of our trading partners have similarly recognized the significant risks inherent in agriculture and the strategic importance of a steady food supply, and provide their farmers and ranchers with a safety net. In the future, I will work with our farmers, the U.S. Congress, and our trading partners to ensure that our safety net is targeted appropriately and is not distorting markets to the detriment of producers in other nations.”

Question: Some of the prior versions of U.S. farm law relied on controlling supply via limits on the amount of acreage farmers could plant a given crop or the government kept excess supplies of grain off the market place until prices rose to certain levels. Are those still tools that could be used in today's market and economic structure? Or should they remain programs of the past?

Obama: “American agricultural policy is constantly evolving and over the years we have moved away from supply control policies and toward a more effective safety net that unleashes the productive power of our farmers. The inclusion of SURE and ACRE in the most recent Farm Bill is an example of how agriculture policy changes over time. These programs represent an effort to incorporate lessons from the past to create a better, more response safety net for producers.

“We need a safety net that reflects the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Rather than return to some of these old policies, I think it is better to focus on what agriculture needs going forward. This means a robust safety that targets payments appropriately net and is configured to reflect the current market structure.”

Question: What are some agriculture policy steps we must absolutely avoid?

Obama: “In considering agricultural policy, we must not forget the interconnectedness of agricultural policy and infrastructure improvements. Unfortunately, maintenance and upgrades to our waterways have been chronically underfunded. As president, I will increase funding so that we can upgrade and maintain our waterways as they are a vital component of our rural infrastructure and enhance the competitiveness of our homegrown products. I also supported the Water Resources Development Act, which authorized major upgrades to our waterways infrastructure, including the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System. As president, I will work to provide the funding necessary to advance these new projects as well.”

Question: What are some agriculture policy steps we must pursue?

Obama: “In the early 1980s American agriculture faced a tremendous crisis due to high debt. Our country faces the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression and while that crisis has not yet directly affected agriculture, an Obama-Biden administration will be vigilant to ensure that it does not spread to America's family farms and ranches. In the 1980s farmers and ranchers had a president that was reluctant to act due to a rigid aversion to government intervention. As president, I will not fail to act if government can help prevent the type of devastation agriculture saw then. My opponent's long history of opposition to farm bills, opposition to government intervention and long history of deregulation draws a sharp contrast to the types of policies producers can expect of my Administration.

“A trend that we must continue in agriculture is the development and utilization of renewable energy. Farmers are on the cutting edge of America’s path to energy independence. We are already replacing millions of barrels of imported oil thanks to our successful biofuels program, and I recently established a goal to have 60 billion gallons of our fuel come from biofuels by 2022. I am a proud supporter of the Renewable Fuels Standard and tax incentives for biofuels. I’ll invest $150 billion over the next ten years in our green energy sector, enhancing farmer profitability, injecting capital into rural economies, and creating up to 5 million new jobs in the process – jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced. This isn’t just good for our domestic industries – this is important to protect our national security.

“My opponent on the other hand, has said that, “ethanol has, absolutely, under no circumstances any value whatsoever” and voted against renewable energy at least 23 times, all while supporting providing the oil and gas industry with $4 billion in tax relief each year.”

Questions: 1.) On a basic farm policy level, are you in favor of or opposed to price supports and/or subsidies to producers, not only in the U.S. but abroad. If so, why? If not, why not? 2.) Some of the prior versions of U.S. farm law relied on controlling supply via limits on the amount of acreage farmers could plant a given crop or the government kept excess supplies of grain off the market place until prices rose to certain levels. Are those still tools that could be used in today's market and economic structure? Or should they remain programs of the past? 3.) What are some agriculture policy steps we must absolutely avoid? 4.) What are some agriculture policy steps we must pursue?

McCain: “I will focus agriculture policy on meeting the food, fiber, feed and energy needs of America and the world. As President, I will approach America’s agriculture policy with the goal of ensuring our farm, ranch, timber and commercial fishing industries are competitive in the global marketplace. I oppose subsidies, which distort markets, artificially raise prices for consumers, and interfere with America’s ability to negotiate with our international trading partners to the detriment of the entire agriculture community and consumers. I understand the power of American leadership in helping other countries solve their poverty problems through agricultural development. By maintaining America’s long tradition of developing and sharing agricultural technology, American farmers can continue to have trading partners that buy high value US products.

“America needs a risk management program for agriculture that reflects the realities of the global marketplace for food, fuel and fiber in the 21st century. When farmers suffer from a natural disaster such as droughts or floods, we should assist them – this is a commitment we have made to our farmers and I will honor it.

“I am firmly committed to bringing the agriculture community together to develop a sustainable market-driven system of risk management. Rapidly rising input costs and fluctuating commodity prices threaten the financial stability of American agriculture. The 21st century global agriculture market is too complex for America’s farmers to rely on an outmoded system of pre-determined Counter-cyclical payments that assumes narrow trading bands for these input costs and commodity prices. A market-based system of risk management will furthermore eliminate the influence of special interests on America’s agricultural policy.”

Question: How should agriculture view the fact that you did not vote on the conference report of the 2008 Farm Bill?

Obama: “Unfortunately, running for president is a tremendously lengthy process and I have missed quite a few Senate votes during this time. However, I do support the 2008 Farm Bill and announced my support of the bill when the conference report came up for a vote. I also made it clear that I objected to President Bush’s veto of the bill, and that I supported the successful override of that veto.

“I made clear that I stand with farmers in supporting a package that provides stability for agriculture. I support the new resources that the Farm Bill provides for renewable energy and conservation. I also strongly believe that the billions of additional dollars that the Farm Bill provides for those Americans facing food insecurity in these troubling economic times are desperately needed. Though I had hoped to see more reform in the bill, I ultimately decided I couldn’t turn my back on our farmers, rural communities, and lower-income Americans who struggle to put food on the table.

“My opponent, who was on the campaign trail during the vote as well, issued statements in which he supported President Bush's veto of the bill and called farm bill spending wasteful and farm support policies 'flawed.'”

McCain: “In today’s economy, when hardworking American families buy groceries they feel the sting of misguided federal agriculture polices. Instead of fine tuning our farm programs to improve their efficiency, we’ve allowed them to swell into mammoth government bureaucracies that generally exist to serve special interests at the behest of Congressional benefactors. Sixty-nine years after the Great Depression and the advent of the Farm Bill, well into the 21st Century, commodity prices have reached record highs. I believe American agriculture has progressed to the point where we need a fundamentally different approach to risk management for agriculture.

“I am not opposed to providing a reasonable level of assistance and risk management to farmers when they need America’s help. Farmers never abandon America, and America mustn’t abandon them. When a farmer suffers from a natural disaster such as droughts or floods, they rightly deserve assistance. But they need a hand up, not a hand out. And more than hand-outs, more than ballooning disaster payments, the families and small businesses throughout the Heartland are demanding affordable quality health care, better education for their children, lower taxes, and relief from government regulation.

“Rural America has seen farm bill after farm bill passed without policies that adequately promote economic development or address population loss. We must improve rural life, provide high-tech connectivity essential for jobs and education, open trade markets, maintain our competitiveness, and reduce overregulation for farmers and ranchers.

“For now, we need to put an end to flawed government policies that distort the markets, artificially raise prices for consumers, and pit producers against consumers. We’ve once again failed farmers in that regard, which is why I opposed this bill.”

Question: Given that the 2008 Farm Bill is now law, what areas will you now focus on for U.S. agriculture policy?

Obama: “While the Farm Bill is now law, that does not mean that there is not still work left to be done on the bill. I have heard some disturbing reports of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to implement a number of the provisions in the law. As president, I will work to implement the 2008 Farm Bill in keeping with the intent of Congress. The legislation is the product of more than 18 months of negotiations that attempted to satisfy a complex set of competing priorities. If particular provisions are difficult to administer or present technical challenges to the Department of Agriculture, I will work with leaders from both parties in Congress and relevant stakeholders to make appropriate adjustments.

“Of course, our agricultural policy is more than just the Farm Bill. As most farmers know, commodity markets within the last few years have become more volatile and unpredictable. My Administration will take a close look at these markets and engage with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to ensure that they are working properly.

“Agriculture has been at the center of the latest round of international trade negotiations. My administration will not just be focused on getting a deal, but getting a good deal for American agriculture and workers. It’s also important that we ensure that our trade agreements create a level playing field for American businesses and workers, and that our farmers and businesses secure robust market access as a result of these agreements.”

McCain: “I believe that rural America can best be served by a comprehensive development strategy to increase economic opportunities which will include lower taxes, strong markets, a vibrant economy, high-tech connectivity, protection from natural disasters, better choice and availability of health insurance, better quality education and retirement security. My commitment to technology and innovation will support prosperity and the quality of life in rural America:

“I support a 21st Century green revolution. Optimizing the use of land, water and other resources requires a robust scientific research agenda. As President, I will direct the USDA to carry out comprehensive research to help develop more stress-resistant, higher yielding crops to increase production per acre. This will not only be critical to addressing our worldwide food needs, but also necessary to combat global warming. I will also promote conservation programs that encourage maximum environmental stewardship, vital to assisting farmers in the improvement of America’s soil, water, air and wildlife habitat.

“I believe that American farmers and ranchers can continue to integrate environmental policies that maintain quality wildlife habitat near and downstream of farmland. The past quarter century has shown that environmental stewardship programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Program have helped reduce wetland loss, improve water quality, and minimize soil erosion. As America builds a new energy economy which includes bio-diesel, cellulosic energy and other agricultural energy sources, common-sense conservation programs should be incorporated into the good agriculture practices central to sustaining healthy ecosystems.

“I believe that the 65 million Americans who live in America’s rural heartland deserve 21st Century services, jobs, education and healthcare. I realize that advances in agriculture, information technology, and business opportunities will allow rural Americans to create their own economic opportunities that are the key to expanding economic prosperity throughout rural America. I support improving the flow of private capital, broadening the availability of technology, supporting the rapid evolution of bio-fuels technology into a sustainable industry and strengthening the infrastructure necessary to deliver the economic output of rural America to the global market.”

Question: Do you support a ban on packer ownership of livestock for a designated time prior to slaughter. If so, why; if not, why not?

Obama: “I support Senator Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) bill that would ban packer ownership. Today meatpackers produce more than 20 percent of the nation’s hogs, and their share is growing. When meatpackers own livestock, they bid less aggressively for the hogs and cattle produced by independent farmers. When supplies are short and prices are rising, they are able to stop buying livestock, which disrupts the market. I support this legislation and will fight to enact it into law.

“As president I will also have my administration enforce existing laws that can help reduce discrimination against small and mid-size farmers. I will issue regulations for what constitutes undue price discrimination and my Administration will enforce the law. I will also strengthen anti-monopoly laws and modify federal agriculture policy to strengthen producer protection from fraud, abuse, and market manipulation.”

McCain: No position.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.