Ronald D. Knutson
Edward G. Smith
Joe L. Outlaw
W. Fred Woods
Changes in farm policy generally occur in relatively small increments. Major watershed changes in policy are few and far between. The new farm bill represents a watershed change. The purpose of this article is to indicate why. While doing this, critical provisions and economic implications will be discussed.
Figure 1 provides a comparison of the provisions of the 1990 Farm Bill with the 1996 Farm Bill. Since 1973, U.S. farm commodity programs have included:
The new farm program has the following main features:
However, since the total amount of payments is fixed, the per unit rate depends on the number of acres enrolled in the program. The annual limits on total amount of payments are indicated in Table 1 for each crop. In addition, payments are made on only 85 percent of the enrolled acreage. Therefore, the payment rate per unit for each crop is calculated using the following formula:
A farmer can compute his/her expected total payments on a crop as follows:
In essence, base acres, as determined in the past, now become contract acres. A farm's 1996 crop acreage base already on file with FSA becomes the farm's contract acres. The contract acres do not change -- farmers cannot build contract acres in the future. Likewise, the farm program yield does not change.
Since the payment rate depends on the total number of enrolled contract acres, it can only be estimated. Our estimates of the payment rates are given in Table 2. USDA will announce minimum estimates that will be more conservatively estimated assuming every unit of production that is eligible will participate. Thus, the realized payments will likely be higher than the announced minimums. The difference, however, will be only marginal.
Under the 1990 farm bill, the repayment rate for wheat, feed grains and soybeans has been interpreted as being the FSA-posted county price. Although the new farm bill specifies that wheat, feed grains and soybeans repayment rates are to be determined by the Secretary to minimize nonrecourse loan forfeitures, to minimize government stocks, to minimize storage costs, and to encourage domestic and international marketings, indications are that the USDA will continue to use the posted county price as the repayment rate. If so, then the decision has been made that competitive world prices are discovered at U.S. terminal markets.
The criteria for setting the loan rate provide explicit instructions to USDA to minimize the potential for forfeiture of commodities to the CCC. With this in mind, most loan rates are set at 85 percent of the preceding 5-year Olympic average farm level season average price (means drop high and low price). Loan maximums of $2.58 per bushel and $1.89, respectively, are specified for wheat and corn. Moreover, should stocks of wheat and corn accumulate, there are provisions for downward adjustments of as much as 10 percent. Table 3 summarizes the loan rate provisions for the other loan eligible commodities. Rye is no longer eligible for the loan.
For example, the total estimated wheat transition payment rate in 1996 is $0.91/bu. Of that, approximately $0.65/bu. would be subject to the $40,000 payment limit and the remaining $0.26/bu. would be subject to an additional $50,000 payment limit.
The loan benefit will be available for all production of loan eligible crops on a farm with a market transition contract, even if they are planted on noncontract acres. In other words, planting beyond the farm's acreage base is completely legal. Essentially, crop bases are no longer a part of the law. Farmland, however, must remain in an agricultural use. Agricultural use does not mean that a crop has to be planted, but the land must be maintained and not physically altered to where a crop could not be planted easily in the future, i.e., if the land was sold for a parking lot, and was paved, it would be difficult to return it to agricultural use. The only prohibited crops are fruits and vegetables, which are only allowed in special cases.
The legislation also provided a 4-week extension beginning April 4, of the CAT insurance enrollment period.
Extension of the pilot options program is authorized and a pilot revenue insurance program is required. The FSA is also required to operate a noninsured crop disaster program to provide the equivalent of CAT coverage to agricultural commodities (except livestock) for which CAT risk protection is not available.
The USDA is also required, in consultation with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to provide appropriate ". . . education in management of the financial risks inherent in the production and marketing of agriculture commodities. . . ." This provision seems to provide a mandate for Extension as well as an opportunity to greatly expand its educational programs in this area.
The Conservation Reserve Program authority is extended through the life of the bill but the program is "capped" at the current level of 36.4 million acres. New enrollments are permitted to replace lands coming out of the program, subject to the overall cap, but as currently interpreted, the payment rates for new lands cannot exceed fair market rental rates. Producers with less environmentally-sensitive lands whose contracts are at least 5 years old are permitted to terminate their contracts early with a 60-day written notice to USDA. Decisions on exactly how expiring contracts and new enrollments will be handled have been deferred because of the urgency of completing the commodity transition payment rules. There are indications that all enrollments, including reenrollments, could be treated as new enrollments.
The Wetlands Reserve Program is continued with a maximum of 975,000 acres, with acreage split as 1/3 permanent easements, 1/3 30-year easements and 1/3 restoration cost-share agreements. Several other conservation programs are created, including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQUIP) with annual funding of $200 million. Half of this is directed to livestock producers for technical and cost-share assistance in addressing environmental improvements on their operations. EQUIP consolidates ACP, Great Plains Conservation Program, Water Quality Incentive Program and the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program. The remaining 50 percent of the funds are available for these purposes.
The general verbiage of the farm bill leaves many decisions to USDA's discretion in how the bill will be implemented at the farm level. This section is designed to provide insight into the substance of what is perceived to be some of the more important implementation issues. Producers should be aware of the substance of these issues as they approach their 1996 cropping decisions and when preparing for program sign-up. The Farm Service Agency, of course, is the authoritative source of information on implementation regulations.
A one-time sign-up contract for the 7-year program will begin on May 20 and end on July 12, 1996. Except for CRP lands with crop bases, producers/landowners who miss this one-time sign-up will not have another opportunity to enroll their farm. However, land from expiring CRP contracts that have base may be added to existing contract acreage or enrolled as new agreements at the time the CRP contract expires.
The 1996 Farm Bill identifies eligibility to enroll in the program to include:
The new farm bill requires, as has been the case in the past, that USDA protect the interests of tenants and sharecroppers. In the new farm bill, USDA likely will be protecting the interests of both the landlord and the tenant.
While the enrollment involves signing a 7-year contract, farmers will be able to continue to operate under their normal annual lease arrangements. However, because of the potential for disputes under changing economic conditions and the need to know how payments are to be divided, landlords and tenants would be well advised to put the terms of the lease in writing.
One of the more important decisions that USDA will make involves the latitude provided the landlord and tenant for division of the payments. With the contract payment limit reduced to $40,000 per person, either the landlord or the tenant may desire a different distribution of the payment than is implied by crop share or cash rent provisions of current leases. The following general rules have been provided by USDA related to this issue:
Since 1973, farmers' crop production decisions have been driven by some combination of target prices and base acreage restrictions, including set-aside/ARP. Beginning in 1996, production decisions will be more fully driven by market forces. With greatly increased flexibility, farmers will have the option of producing what they believe to be the most profitable crop combination, based on expected market prices, while getting transition payments on their contract acreage. With current relatively high wheat, feed grains and soybean prices, that presents some interesting choices for cotton and rice farmers.
Fence row-to-fence row production is not an unreasonable expectation over the next year or two, although the 1996 crop year may be affected to some extent by the delay in passage of the farm bill. However, from now on, given normal weather, prices can be expected to reflect our ability to move commodities into export markets.
With marketing loan/loan rate provisions being specified to be set on the basis of minimizing stock accumulations, CCC is likely to hold considerably less stocks. Private stock holdings will be motivated by market conditions.
Without the government (CCC) as an attractive market for commodity forfeitures, there will be increased dependence on export markets. As a result, international market conditions will have an even greater impact on the level and stability of domestic market prices than in the past.
Each of the above economic forces implies greater price instability. As a result, producers' ability to manage risk will be a more important determinant of who survives. Futures markets, contract markets, cooperative pooling, and price insurance will become more important survival tools for farm managers. Those managers who are the most adept at using marketing and production risk management tools are the most likely to survive. This gives a definite advantage to farm units that can afford to allocate resources to specialize in risk management.
Moderate size farms, many of whom, by our representative farm analyses, are already having problems competing, will face even greater challenges under the provisions of the new farm bill. As a result, farm consolidation, which has characterized agriculture since World War II, can be expected to continue, if not accelerate. Having said this, reality and logic indicate that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to design a farm program that saves moderate size farms with or without a reduced role for government. To do so would cost significantly more than current programs and/or reduce the efficiency of the production sector in general.
Does the new farm bill represent a transition of government out of agriculture as is implied by the term "transition payments?" It will not be automatic since reversion to the 1949 permanent legislation was retained by the 1996 Bill. Rather, it depends on the sequence of economic and political events over the next seven years. If we are able to get by without severe rationing of supplies due to adverse weather (including extremely high prices or export restrictions) and without extremely low prices (resulting in many farm bankruptcies and jeopardizing the farm credit system), farm programs designed around direct income supports to the production sector could, indeed, be at an end.
The debate on this farm bill clearly suggests that the willingness of government to subsidize agriculture and to maintain commodity programs is increasingly questioned. It is important that existing institutions, including the research and extension components of our land grant universities, rise to the challenges presented by the 1996 farm bill, particularly in terms of improving the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to manage risk.