Facing a reelection fight and well-funded opponent, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor is keen to play up his strong ties to the state’s farming sector. That makes perfect sense considering the huge role agriculture plays in the state.
Pryor, who spoke with Farm Press in late February, is pleased that a new farm bill is now in place. However, the three-year process to get the legislation passed was “way too long, no doubt. It got balled up in the D.C. politics but I’m glad we finally got it done.
“There’s no single piece of legislation more important to Arkansas’ economy than the farm bill. If you look at the state, we love having our Fortune 500 companies -- Wal-Mart, Dillard’s, Axiom, J.B. Hunt and others. However, 25 percent of the state’s economy is in agriculture. One in six jobs is tied to agriculture. So, the farm bill is very important to give the state stability and predictability in the ag sector.”
After talking to farmers around the state about the farm bill, Pryor says “most are happy. There are a lot of questions around the new insurance programs -- particularly from rice producers. Now, they’re waiting to see how it’s all implemented.”
Was Pryor ever worried that the farm bill wouldn’t pass?
“I always thought we’d get it done. I was always concerned but it never got the point where I didn’t think it wouldn’t pass.
“It was frustrating because the House wanted to separate nutrition (program funding) from the farm bill. I looked at that with many others and said, ‘If you do that, the whole thing is going down.’ And that’s exactly what happened.
“In fact, it was pretty disingenuous by some House members. They (separated out the nutrition title) from the bill and still voted against both pieces. That wasn’t good -- bad for the process.”
Pryor believes those who used such tactics, “were much more concerned about some political agenda and ideology rather than having a really strong agricultural economy in the United States.”
Pryor points to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, as deserving special praise. “She just kept working and kept working. One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that agriculture is Michigan’s second-largest industry. So, she has a lot of knowledge and expertise in the field. She also has a lot of expertise in negotiating … that was very impressive.”
Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, Pryor’s opponent in the November election, voted against the farm bill repeatedly. Considering Arkansas is an agriculture-heavy state, the action perplexed many residents. Does Pryor have any insight?
“Well, from my standpoint, it was a learning lesson about Rep. Cotton and who he’s really listening to. I think he answered that very definitively with that vote. He’s certainly listening to the people funding his campaign. If you look at all those groups – like Club for Growth – funding his efforts to win a Senate seat, they’re all against the farm bill.
It’s kind of stunning to me that a congressman from Arkansas would oppose a farm bill. He was the only one in the entire state delegation to oppose it.”
Pryor says the vote shows voters “the very sharp contrasts between my opponent and me. We can talk about the farm bill as just one of those.”
Voters should also know about Pryor’s role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. This is important as the subcommittee is responsible for funding federal programs for farmers, producers, and rural communities.
“While I wasn’t a conferee on the farm bill conference committee, (Stabenow) went out of her way to keep me updated on the conference progress. She knows that I’m chair of the subcommittee that will fund all this.”
Pryor says he’s “looking forward” to the helming the subcommittee. “I believe we’ll get a lot of great things done for American agriculture.
The way I view it, is this isn’t just about Arkansas. We do a lot of good things in the U.S. economy, but no one does agriculture better than the United States. We’re clearly the leader and everyone in the world wants to be like us. The innovation happens here, new techniques, new equipment. This is where the action is.
“It’s very important to the global economy that the United States remains strong in agriculture. So, I couldn’t be happier to chair the subcommittee and help fund that and set priorities.”
Queried on government funding of agricultural research, Pryor says that’s a priority. “I think the USDA has struggled, especially with the sequester, to try and find the resources needed for ag research. Their hearts been in the right place but they just didn’t have the resources to allocate.
“Ag research is very important and not just farming states recognize that. Think about the Gates Foundation, which is involved with hunger problems around the world. Those type organizations are among the biggest cheerleaders for U.S. investment in ag research. They know if we’re going to increase productivity, find plants that use less water, more abundant crops, and all the rest, it’ll happen in the United States.
“This is an area where the U.S. is a major world leader and we must keep that ag research edge.”
What about D.C. chatter on the Brazil WTO case?
“There is talk but I’ve not got anything new definitive on it. There is quite a bit of discussion about that in Washington. The case with Brazil is obviously something that bears watching.”