Federal investment in agriculture is a very wise, thoughtful investment. How we do it is the critical issue. At the end, I believe strongly it must be predictable, equitable, and beyond challenge.

Thus spake USDA director Mike Johanns, commenting recently on negotiations around the 2007 farm bill.

That’s awesome. So who will he be approaching for input as the farm bill debate opens? Well, he did spend a lot of the last year on the road, holding forums with farmers across the country. No doubt those talks made some impact on the proposal he submitted to Congress.

But I suspect Bush’s ag man tipped his hand about his real constituency when he announced the program for the department’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum. The theme this year will be “Agriculture at the Crossroads: Energy, Farm, and Rural Policy,” to be held in D.C. March 1-2.

Prepare to be shocked by the roster of speakers.

Joining Johanns on the plenary panel will be Patricia A. Woertz, president and CEO of Archer Daniels Midland and a former Chevron exec; John Johnson, president and CEO of the low-profile energy/agribusiness conglomerate CHS; and Warren R. Staley, chair and CEO of Cargill, the grain-trading and food-processing giant.

In other words, if you don’t front a multi-billion dollar multinational agribiz firm that has benefited dramatically from federal farm policy over the last generation, there’s no room for you on this panel.

Well, that’s not entirely true. To mix things up, the USDA tapped Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, for a seat at the table.

The presence of the latter only bolsters my suspicion that corn-based ethanol mounts no real challenge to Big Oil, and in fact serves as a distraction from real conservation efforts.

But how can I say that the agribiz giants are writing Bush’s farm policy? Didn’t Johanns’ farm bill proposal win applause from from the NYT editorial page and even Oxfam as a real departure from past pro-agribiz policy?

Don’t be naive. According to Daryll Ray, the eminent University of Tennessee agricultural-policy analyst, the Bush proposal amounts to a “continuation of the 1996 and 2002 Farm Bills with some tinkering with the specifics.”

For Ray, the proposal doesn’t fundamentally challenge a system that urges grain and cotton farmers to produce as much as possible, market prices and the environment be damned.

And that’s exactly the sort of setup that bolsters the bottom lines of big grain traders like ADM, Cargill, and CHS — the very companies whose CEOs will be playing footsie with the USDA chief and the big oil flack in D.C. in March.