NEWARK, Del. — Under Secretary Mike Johanns, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has worked for the past two years drafting a Farm Bill that places a new emphasis on childhood nutrition programs and produce, while trimming back federal subsidies for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. Despite his sudden resignation last month, congressional leaders, the Bush administration and the USDA currently appear committed to those same goals in the 2007 Farm Bill as it enters its markup phase this fall, according to Kathy Means, vice president of government relations at the Produce Marketing Association here.
“This administration has made its position clear on the Farm Bill, and I would not expect that position to change,” Means said.
Johanns' tenure at the USDA and his work on the Farm Bill have been widely praised by both his peers and many members of the produce industry. But several senators expressed surprise that he would leave his office during this crucial period for the bill. Notably, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told the Associated Press that “for the secretary to walk away in the middle of a farm bill borders on irresponsible.”
Yet Means noted that Johanns plans to run for Senate in Nebraska this year, so there doesn't appear to be any suspicion surrounding his move. And Charles Conner, who has taken over as interim secretary, was heavily involved in drafting the current version of the bill.
“As much as this Farm Bill is identified with Secretary Johanns, there are a lot of folks working on the farm bill for the USDA,” Means said. “Chuck Conner has been intimately involved in the Farm Bill effort, so I don't think they're going to miss a beat.”
The bill passed the House earlier this year, and as they await passage of a Senate version, PMA and other industry groups have maintained an ongoing dialogue with legislative leaders to ensure that the bill represents the needs of fruit and vegetable growers.
“The specialty crop industry is very hopeful for even greater attention in the Farm Bill through the Senate process,” Means said. “We were gratified by what we got in the House, but we're hoping for even more in the Senate.”