Standing deep in the forest of farm legislation that is lumbering through Congress may be the ultimate Christmas tree.
It could become a sequoia-sized break for thousands of farmers delinquent on Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) loans -- a chance to live free for years on their farms if they plant 50 acres or more of softwood timber.
The unusual provision was inserted with little notice into the Senate farm bill by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose state has both a high level of FmHA loan delinquencies and near-perfect conditions for growing the timber specified in his proposal.
Cochran would allow delinquent farmers to reamortize their loans, then delay repayment until they sell the mature timber they would be required to grow -- up to 45 years in some cases.
Farmers also could borrow up to $100,000 more for planting trees.
Cochran said he intended the timber amendment as a debt-retirement and conservation measure, but he agreed that it also might be construed to allow delinquent farmers to live free on their farms for long periods.
Cochran said he put the language into the bill for himself and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), whose state also has a high level of FmHA loan delinquencies and the right climate for softwoods.
An aide to Nunn said the senator "doesn't intend it to be for every delinquent FmHA farmer. . . . It is not something he sees as a catchall for all delinquent FmHA borrowers.
"Farmers would have to show they could make repayment, and we think this has the potential to help some of them repay their loans, keep their farms and get erodible land out of production," the aide said.
The House version contains no such timber amendment, so Cochran's language will be in dispute when congressional conferees work on the credit section of the farm bill, possibly next week.
The conferees met yesterday for a second time, approved a package of staff recommendations on research provisions of the bill, then adjourned until Monday.
Subcommittees continued private meetings on more controversial sections of the measure.
Rep. Ed Jones (D-Tenn.), a conferee and chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on conservation, credit and rural development, said he didn't know about the Cochran proposal. "I don't know anyone who would want that," he added.
The provision could have a major impact in Cochran's state, which has a larger percentage of farmers on FmHA loans than any other state and one of the highest delinquency rates in the nation.
"They may have intended it for hard-luck people in Mississippi," one congressional source said, "but the language is looser than that -- these are gifts. There's no requirement that tree plantings be certified, no eligibility criteria."
"It would only work for southern pines," said a Capitol Hill expert on timber.
"They could plant longleaf loblolly pines for pulp or timber and then wait for 45 years for them to mature before they have to start repaying these loans," this specialist said.
Softwoods, he added, require between 20 and 30 years to reach the pulp-cutting stage and 40 to 50 years of growth before they are ready for timbering.
"The guy who dies or quits before his trees are mature ends up living for free on the reamortized farm," he said.
The administration apparently has not taken a stand on the Cochran proposal, although Cochran said that Frank W. Naylor Jr., an undersecretary of agriculture, had "signed off" on it.
Naylor was unavailable for comment yesterday, but two weeks ago said he intended to take another look at the language.
An Agriculture Department study sent to Congress earlier this year calculated that only about 1,000 FmHA clients might be able to qualify for loan reamortizations through pine-tree planting.
Nunn's interest in trees resulted in last-minute farm bill language requiring that at least 5 million acres of trees be planted in a new conservation reserve program that would pay farmers to remove erodible land from production for long periods.