U.S. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns will be at the Iowa State Fair today (Thursday) to hold a “listening post” on the upcoming rewrite of the farm bill. Governor Tom Vilsack praises Johanns, the former governor of Nebraska, for making the move. “This, by the way, is a tremendous opportunity for Iowans,” Vilsack says of the forum. “I think the secretary should be congratulated for going out and reaching out to people and having them give their two-cents-worth in terms of the farm bill.” Vilsack expects any number of topics to come up for discussion, including the idea of tighter limits on federal farm subsidy payments. “Opportunities to talk about whether or not we should limit payments to farmers so that we have sufficient resources to help smaller operations and family farm operations survive,” Vilsack says. “I mean, there’s just a real opportunity here that I hope people take advantage of.” The three-hour forum begins today at 11:30 a.m. and will conclude at 2:30 p.m. Vilsack intends to be there, and hopes to get some time with Johanns to press the case for federal drought assistance for the especially dry portions of Iowa. Johanns, a northeast Iowa native, knows about drought, according to Vilsack. “The interesting thing about drought is it’s spotty,” Vilsack says. “You can have one farmer who’s in great shape across the road from another farmer who’s in just desperate shape, so we have a fairly significant list of counties that we’ve asked to be assessed.” Once those assessments of drought-related damage are complete, Johanns will decide whether to extend federal disaster relief to farmers in certain Iowa counties. That relief ranges from low-interest federal loans to waiving certain rules that prevent livestock farmers from using conservation reserve pastures to feed their stock. U-S farm policy is laid out in legislation known as the Farm Bill. The last rewrite occured in 2002, and, among many other things, it maintained a “safety net” of federal payments for farmers if the price of certain commodities slipped below the price it took to grow grains like corn and soybeans. The Farm Bill is to be rewritten in 2007 and Johanns has already held open hearings in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Tennessee. The U-S-D-A is accepting comments on the Farm Bill on its website — www.usda.gov/farmbill.