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URBANA When dust settles after the 2007 farm bill debate, Robert Thompson believes Central Illinois farmers may not see much change from existing policy - with one caveat.

The University of Illinois agricultural policy specialist said strong forces of change, including a $400 billion federal budget deficit, world trade talks and public perception that farm programs fail to meet objectives, could influence farm policy.

"Remember a farm bill is more than commodity programs. It includes conservation, nutrition programs and an energy title," said Thompson, speaking Monday to farmers attending a U of I farm income workshop. "Also two-thirds of U.S. agriculture receives no commodity payments."

Thompson further noted a farm bill simply represents authorizing legislation. Without a budget appropriation, nothing happens, but there is one exception.

Commodity program payments are set as entitlements under the Commodity Credit Corp., which draws from a $30 billion line of credit at the U.S. Treasury. Congress periodically replenishes the fund.

"I hear a lot of people are happy with the 2002 farm bill. Congress will respond to that. Rarely do farm bills change radically. They evolve," said Thompson.

"We know how extremely important government payments have been in 2005. They are higher than net farm income. The most important impact on the 2007 farm bill will be economic conditions when the bill is written."

Thompson further pointed to the number of counties across rural America which voted for President Bush in the last election. The Republican Party will not want to lose those votes as the 2007 farm bill gets formed, he noted.

Despite several factors pointing to staying the course with federal farm policy, Thompson said public criticism of existing policy as failing its objectives has increased.

For example, low income farmers receive little assistance from farm programs. Thompson added farm program payments tend to cause rural business consolidation instead of creating more jobs.

"Large differences in payments received in regions around the country are pitting the north with corn and soybeans against the south with cotton and rice," said Thompson, who just returned from World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong.

"Fruit and vegetable growers who don't get program payments are also fragmenting agriculture's solidarity."

Thompson told farmers to count on bolstered efforts in the 2007 farm bill for food safety, bioterrorism and ethanol/biodiesel made from crops. Increased conservation programs which could pay farmers in lieu of direct payments targeted for reduction by the WTO also will be a likely addition to the bill, he said.

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