If you're planning to visit Jonesboro, Ark., on Feb. 15, make sure your tape recorder has fresh batteries. The question-and-answer session at the 2006 Arkansas State University Agribusiness Conference could be especially lively.
While many renowned speakers are on the slate, most attention will be on Ken Cook, the founder and head of the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
To the chagrin of many, Cook is well-known to those working in the agriculture policy arena and certainly has the ear of Congress. Since 1985, he's been involved in the development and advocacy of conservation efforts as part of U.S. commodity programs.
However, he is probably better known — especially among Southern producers — through the controversy and rancor generated by his stances on subsidy payments and EWG's database on payment recipients.
Despite a potentially cool reception, Cook said he's keen to visit the Mid-South. “I hope to spend some time on farms in the area. I do that as often as possible. (Last fall), I was in California rice country for three days and had an incredible time.
“It's an honor to be invited to the conference. I've got a lot of respect for farmers, whether they're in a federal program or not. I learn more from sitting down and exchanging ideas with people who disagree with me than in talking with those who see the world as I do. I look forward to learning a lot.”
This will be Cook's first trip to Arkansas in many years, said Bert Greenwalt, an ASU professor of agricultural economics overseeing the conference. Greenwalt, who admits he has fielded calls from some unhappy with ASU's decision to invite Cook, said the conference's purpose has always been to “provide a forum to bring information on trends and issues to the agri-business people in our region. The conference mission is to provide access to experts and newsmakers shaping the future of agriculture.”
In feedback from past conferences, “we heard the conference is unique in that it provides speakers and information that isn't duplicated in this region,” said Greenwalt. “We bring multiple perspectives, both inside and outside the establishment and…across the spectrum of opinion.”
Cook, who spent summers on his uncles' Missouri farms growing up, said he will remind farmers about the history of subsidy programs, especially from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. During that period, he said, Congress shifted funds from voluntary conservation programs to commodities.
“That's when (EWG) began making the case to taxpayers and policymakers that there are aspects of the commodity programs we don't think are a good deal. They're wasteful for taxpayers and too much money is going to too few people. We felt conservation investments would help more farmers, more equitably than plowing all this money into commodity programs. So EWG became more critical of the commodity programs in mid-1990s straight through to the 2002 farm bill and since. That's a lot of history. Up until 1992-1993, we remained hopeful we'd have the voluntary incentive programs fully funded.”
Among Cook's other comments: On subsidy levels and a cut-off…
“We don't know exactly where the line should be drawn, but there should be a point beyond which, if you're getting government subsidies, you should be on your own. Most farmers get no subsidy money. You should be able to say to the very large operations — whether owned by a family, a partnership, a corporation, whatever — that they should be able to make it alone in the marketplace. Our view is that it's more important to have a basic safety net that applies to farmers no matter how they've organized their farm. Beyond a certain level, though, the farm should be relying on the marketplace.”
On how the EWG will approach the 2007 farm bill debate…
“The ranks of people interested in reforms are growing. It's swelled since the budget reconciliation, when farmers took essentially no hit.
“A safety net is needed for producers, but we need a much more significant investment in conservation. And we're going to emphasize the fact that there are an awful lot of farmers — some states are full of them — that haven't gotten a penny of subsidies for decades. They have conservation needs, rural development needs…all kinds of things where they need to see a federal stake in support. They've gotten nothing for 70 years. We'll reach out to them along with wildlife groups. It will be a lively debate.”
For more information on the ASU Agribusiness Conference, visit http://agri.astate.edu/Ag%20Bus%20Conference/agbusconf06/mainpage06.htm 
(Editor's note: visit www.deltafarmpress.com  to read more of DFP's pre-conference interviews with Cook and Greenwalt.)
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