Once every five or so years, a large group of people, many of whom have never seen a stalk of rice or cotton, are charged with writing a new farm bill.
The thought of this is unnerving to say the least, but agriculture has an ace in the hole during this process – farmers who are conversant in both farm policy and the intricacies of the farming business, who can cajole congressional leaders and educate them if need be, or articulate without batting an eye on how a proposed policy might play out in the rural countryside.
One of those farmer leaders is Alto, La., rice farmer John Owen, chairman of the USA Rice Producers Group and chair of government affairs for the USA Rice Federation.
Owen didn’t expect to be caught up in the mad dash to the finish during the writing of the Agricultural Act of 2014. “The farm bill was supposed to be over before I became chairman,” Owen said with a smile. “But (former chairman) Linda Raun is extremely capable, and she did the lion’s share of the work. All I did was help carry the ball in from the five.”
Nonetheless, there were a few would-be tacklers between southern agriculture and the goal line, according to Owen. “I don’t think people realize how close to the brink we were of having a farm bill that provided very little support for the Delta. At one time, among the House Ag Committee leadership, Reps. Frank Lucas and Collin Peterson were the only advocates for a choice in farm policy options that were appropriate for all crops in all regions.”
Owen noted that Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran “was always there for us, but the Senate version of the farm bill was just not very friendly to Delta agriculture, until senator Cochran became ranking member of the committee.’’
Most of the differences among members of Congress were philosophical – whether to focus on a one -size-fits-all safety net program, or one that provided multiple options. Proposed changes for payment limitations and actively engaged rules were also on the table.
“At times, the process was very tenuous,” Owen said. “There were very strong, honest disagreements between the Senate and the House. Chairman Lucas understood quickly that we needed a farm policy program that worked for the entire country. And for that to happen, we needed a choice. Sen. Cochran also understood the need for a choice. There is not a grain of rice grown in Minnesota, but Rep. Collin Peterson fought for us the whole way. All of them recognized the importance of diversity in American agriculture.”
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, “had very different ideas about the direction of production agriculture,” Owen said. “She’s from an area that has very diverse agriculture, but it’s much smaller.
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Owen believes that should a version of Stabenow’s farm bill been implemented, “farmers would’ve walked away from the government program, and instead of having more family farms, you would’ve had 20,000-acre farms and true corporate agriculture, not family agriculture.
Owen was often called upon to provide a farmer’s perspective in those negotiations, and he pulled from his 32 years of crop production. Today, Owen rents his rice farms to three fellow farmers, but manages irrigation on the farms and manages the grain elevator. The lighter duty has given him more time to devote to rice industry issues.
Owen says Reece Langley, vice president, government affairs for the USA Rice Federation and Joe Outlaw, Extension economist, Texas A&M University helped him make the case for southern agriculture. “Reece is very quiet and unassuming, and unbelievably influential. We had the best economist in Joe. You can’t argue with the facts. You can shuffle them around little bit, but we just won by showing that the numbers (for one size fits farm programs) didn’t work. We ran the spreadsheets. We ran 500 different price scenarios. His grad students were just groaning.”
The new farm bill incorporates new programs including Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), which comprise a new safety net for producers of corn, rice, soybeans and wheat.
ARC is a revenue program available for all crops except cotton, while PLC is a counter-cyclical policy for all crops except cotton. The Stacked Income Protection Program, or STAX, will be rolled out in 2015 for cotton.
While these provisions were definitely worth fighting for, Owen is bothered that they were such a radical departure from past farm bills. “To me, farm bills need to be gradually adjusted. The traditional counter-cyclical style program has served American agriculture well for decades. Anytime we have had too much of a departure from that model, it hasn’t worked very well.
“But I think we were so close to the abyss (with current law) that I am just thrilled with what we’ve got. We were so close to being excluded because of payment limits. We were so close to being excluded because of changes in actively engaged rules.”
With USDA now in the process of writing rules needed to implement the provisions of the new farm bill, Owen and other industry leaders are hoping to head off potential snags.
“For the actively engaged provisions,” Owen said, “USDA should strictly follow congressional intent in making changes required by the farm bill and ensure that the provisions don’t in any way limit the ability of family farms to remain eligible for farm policy.”
USDA is required to implement the Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO), under enrollment in the PLC program, by 2015 for producers in all counties and parishes. Owen says SCO “will be a big help in the Delta where we face catastrophic loss from hurricanes and other weather. It’s not going to guarantee anyone a profit. But it will keep you afloat, where you can go to your banker and borrow money and keep on farming the next year until times get better.
“We’re are pleased about enhancements, such as enterprise units by practice and coverage levels by practice. Those are important for producers throughout the Delta and should not be delayed beyond the second year of the farm bill. I have a lot of confidence in Krysta Harden, (who heads USDA’s farm bill implementation task force). She’s the right lady for the job.”
Mid-South producers will soon be making big decisions at signup, decisions that will be permanent for the life of the farm bill, or possibly longer, should the law be extended at some point.
“There are going to be some really good decision-making tools coming out through the land-grant universities to help farmers make those decisions,” Owen said. “You can go to their Web site, plug in your yields and planted acres history, which you should be able to get from Farm Service Agency or your insurance agent, and I think you’ll come out with a pretty clear idea of what you need to do to provide yourself with the best safety net for your particular farm.”
A preliminary version of a farm bill decision aid tool for farmers developed by the Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University is available here. https://afpc.tamu.edu/models/decisionaid.php.
Owen believes Delta producers will lean toward choosing the PLC option for rice and ARC for corn and soybeans. But whatever the option, he’s hoping the new farm bill will not only help farmers survive tough times, but grow their business if need be.
“A safety net needs to allow us to grow to greatest efficiency. Big isn’t always efficient, but there is a sweet spot for every producer. Every producer is different with what he can do.”
Owen says the U.S. rice industry and the Obama administration still have work to do in international rice trade matters. “We’ve got rice coming in from Asia that is threatening our traditional markets in Mexico and Central and South America.
“We’re asking that the subsidies on that rice be investigated, for Vietnam in particular. We don’t believe they are WTO compliant. We’re hoping that the Obama administration will seriously look at those things.”
U.S. rice producers can compete internationally as long as there is a level playing field in global trade and a solid farm bill at home. “Given market access, we have some of the most efficient rice production in the world. We can compete anywhere. Rice is the first grain. It has a bright future.”
For more information on the new farm bill, visit http://1.usa.gov/1mhwJsn.