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Guest opinion submitted by Idaho Senator Mike Crapo

During my tenure in Congress, I have served on both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees. One of the most valuable tools I have discovered when preparing to write a farm bill is organizing a series of statewide town hall meetings. These meetings give me, my staff and agency staff the opportunity to gather information about the strengths and weaknesses of the bill from those who are most affected by farm policy on the ground in Idaho. This is valuable first-hand information that provides the background and insight I need as Congress works to write the next farm bill. The 2002 Farm Bill was written at a time when our nation was anticipating a significant budget surplus. Then, the reality of costs of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, domestic terror and natural disaster recovery changed the picture, both increasing government spending and contributing to a slump in the U.S. economy.About two-thirds of appropriations are mandated, leaving only one-third of the budget for discretionary spending and budget reconciliation, including Defense and Homeland Security. The reconciliation package would reduce spending by $40 billion over five years (to 2010). On another positive note, the recent stronger economy has reduced about $50 billion dollars of the multi-trillion dollar debt.Itâ??s in this budget climate that we begin deliberations on a new farm bill. The two primary pressures are the budget deficit and World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations. Integral to our deliberations on the shape and direction of the next farm bill is thoughtful feedback. These statewide discussions would not be productive without input from farmers, ranchers, agricultural organizations and other interested communities. I have been impressed with the participation and meaningful discussions weâ??ve had at the meetings. Some of the issues that have been raised thus far mirror larger interests of many Americans: the price of fuel, the need for expanded renewable energy sources, farm input costs, food safety and the importance of fair and equal treatment in international markets. Other areas of interest include commodity crop programs, specialty crop assistance, nutrition programs, agriculture research funding and conservation programs. Concerns about funding sources, outlook for the future and bigger picture risk issues have also been articulated. I was pleased to kick off the series of meetings and attend those held in Sandpoint, Rexburg, Blackfoot, Post Falls, Caldwell, Gooding and Burley. My State Director of Agriculture, Don Dixon, has already or will attend every meeting, including those I cannot due to the Senate schedule.I am encouraged by the direction that these critical meetings are going and the positive effect they will have in the development of the next farm bill. I appreciate the participation of those who have attended thus far, and I look forward to the rest of the meetings we will be holding. Participation is vital for those in the farming community, both the experienced farmers and those just starting out. All voices must contribute if the laws that will dictate these important programs are to be the most effective and responsive on the ground, where it counts. For information about where upcoming meetings will be held, please contact any of my state offices or my Washington, D.C. office.