U.S. farmers are willing to take a lead role in caring for the environment, but also see a farm income "safety net" and greater trade opportunities as high priorities, according to a survey of agricultural producers that spanned 27 states.

The National Agricultural, Food and Public Policy Preference Survey was commissioned by the Farm Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Oak Brook, Ill. It was part of a comprehensive effort to examine agricultural policy options and to gather producer input on future policies, most notably the 2002 Farm Bill. The survey results were compiled and analyzed at Kansas State University. Texas A&M University produced a publication called The 2002 Farm Bill: Policy Options and Consequences. Other land grant universities and state agricultural statistics services also sponsored the survey.

"At a time when several different farm bill proposals are being discussed in Washington, D.C., it is critical to have a clear picture of producer preferences for the next farm bill," says Kansas State University agricultural economist Brad Lubben. Lubben was the lead author of the report produced by Kansas State.

The survey was designed to provide direct producer input into the development of the next farm bill. The current farm bill expires at the end of September, 2002.

Farm Income and Risk Management

"One important conclusion from the survey is that producers are looking to government to continue their traditional role of providing an income safety net for agricultural producers," Lubben says.

Eighty percent of survey respondents favored a government-directed farm income safety net. Almost all of those producers agreed that baseline spending levels for agricultural support should be either maintained or increased.

Farmers favored support payments tied to price over other support tools, and also ranked tax-deferred savings accounts as the highest risk management priority, above increased crop insurance coverage and other tools.

Producers were divided on the role of interstate dairy compacts. Most respondents want to expand the Northeast Dairy Compact to more regions of the country. However, if the program cannot be expanded, they favored allowing it to expire.

Conservation and Environmental Policy

"It’s clear that the respondents are strong advocates for conservation programs," Lubben says. "Through existing programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and others, growers appear ready and willing to provide environmental benefits to society if society is willing to provide financial incentives for doing so. But it’s also clear that they’re not in favor of shifting commodity program funding to pay for those environmental incentives."

Respondents favored either maintaining or increasing enrollment in the CRP.

Most agreed that incentives to improve or support water quality, erosion control, biofuels, farmland preservation, wildlife habitat, animal waste management and open space preservation should be funded, but were mixed on endangered species habitat incentives and carbon sequestration.

Producers may see potential in being paid to store carbon in the soil and remove it from the atmosphere. But respondents may also be unsure of the overall effectiveness and management constraints of sequestering carbon, contributing to what looks like a wait-and-see attitude, according to the report.

Trade and Food Policy

Most of the growers surveyed believed that they benefited from international trade and supported expanding opportunities through free trade agreements and the elimination of unilateral trade sanctions. Trade negotiations, however, could be difficult as producers were also in favor of comprehensive deliberations, including labor, environmental and food safety issues.

Farmers surveyed were in favor of labeling biotechnology- derived products, regardless of whether there is a scientific difference in the resulting food product. But they were split on labeling other production practices when there is no scientific

difference in the resulting food product.

However, the vast majority – 98% – favored country-of-origin labeling of food products. Respondents also strongly agreed that government efforts to improve traceability from consumer back to producer should be stepped up.

According to Lubben, "The major debate is one of science versus process. On one hand, if there is no scientific difference in the food product, a label could imply differences that do not exist and hurt consumer demand. On the other hand, labeling could provide information about different production practices that are important

to some consumers."

Agricultural Structure

Access to capital, education and training, and business development ranked as the most important goals for rural development, the survey showed. Those priorities ranked ahead of rural infrastructure and services funding and rural access to the

Internet. The majority of growers agreed that maintaining or increasing farm and rural credit programs was important.

"The survey also showed that most producers look to the government to support a competitive marketplace, through the enforcement of existing antitrust laws and merger reviews, and through the collecting and reporting of agricultural market information," Lubben says.

The survey results highlight the complex and sometimes conflicting views of producers regarding policy choices. However, as in previous farm bill cycles, producers see a definite role for the government to play in supporting agriculture. "Providing a farm income safety net, promoting conservation practices, expanding

agricultural trade opportunities, ensuring a safe food supply, and preserving a competitive agricultural marketplace are all important priorities for producers," he adds.

A full report of the survey findings and a link to the Texas A&M report is available in the 2002 Farm Bill section on the Farm Foundation Website at www.farmfoundation.org.