US farmers and ranchers should get more involved in the debate on the future shape of farm support, or risk having new policies imposed on them from outside.

Addressing this week’s American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) annual convention in Nashville, Tennessee, union president Bob Stallman said outside pressures for change were mounting.

“For decades, agriculture has relied on our farm programme as a sturdy bridge that gets us to the other side of the river,” he said.

“Today that bridge is beginning to sag.

The longer we wait, the more others outside of agriculture will seek to build a new bridge that serves their needs at the expense of ours.”

Mr Stallman’s comments came in the wake of the World Trade Organisation’s recent meeting in Hong Kong, when it reiterated the determination of trade partners to limit export promotion and trade distorting supports.

US countercyclical payments, used to compensate producers for falling prices, are a particular target.

Washington is also gearing up for a new Farm Bill in 2007, which will probably include support cuts as the government seeks to contain its massive budget deficit, as well as a redeployment of funds.

The AFBF has predicted the shape of this change in support in a new report from its Making American Agriculture Productive and Profitable committee, presented to the 6500 convention delegates.

“Tomorrow’s farmers and ranchers will receive greater recognition of their efforts to conserve natural resources and use environmentally friendly technologies, while still providing consumers with a safe and abundant food supply,” said the report.

As well as the shift in support from market measures to environmental payments, the report predicts a long-term decline in the number of farmers, a boost in global trade and more rapid technological changes.

US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns welcomed the fact that farmers understood the need to be flexible and open to new ideas.

He insisted that, while he would like to maintain current farm programmes, mounting federal deficits “aren’t good for agriculture”.

He added: “The administration is going to preach restraint regarding reducing the deficit.”

Mr Johanns also used his address to the convention to announce the provision of $19m (10.6m) of new grants for renewable energy projects and value-added business ventures.

A further $18.8m (10.5m) is being made available for rural business development loans.

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk