Facing a crowd of farmers besieged with soaring input costs and increasingly shaky bottom lines, three Arkansas congressional delegates climbed onto a Stuttgart, Ark., stage on Nov. 11. Speaking to producers in the heart of Arkansas rice country, the delegates — all Democrats, and perhaps emboldened by dipping approval ratings for Republican leaders — repeatedly cast doubt on the intentions of the Bush administration in crafting trade policy and new agriculture legislation.

No fan of chief U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, Rep. Marion Berry encouraged the large crowd to call the White House to voice displeasure at the current direction of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations.

“I served with Rob Portman. He has no more business being U.S. trade rep than I’ve got trying to fly the space shuttle,” said Berry to much applause.

“That’s not his fault. He takes his orders from the White House and their instructions are to do as much damage to American farm programs as possible. That (in turn) will provide a legislative excuse not to pass a good farm bill. I’m just telling you the truth.

“The phone number to the White House is 202-456-1414. Call them. Call them 10 times a day. Call them every time you think about it. You won’t get to talk to the president or Karl Rove because they’re both busy. But tell them what you think about the trade negotiation that’s coming up.”

Unless Congress is kept in session, Berry intends to be in Hong Kong for the next round of trade talks in December. “I have no desire to go to Hong Kong. But I’m going. Guys like Portman…aren’t so brave if you’re standing there looking at them.”

Portman, said Berry, was quoted a few weeks ago saying, “‘we may have to suffer some pain.’ Well, he was talking about you suffering pain. He doesn’t intend to suffer. That’s why I’m going (to Hong Kong) to hold their feet to the fire and not let them give away the ranch. This is the situation we’re in… I hope that thing folds up like a window-shade and we come back home without getting much done.”

The United States has reached a critical juncture for agriculture, said Sen. Blanche Lincoln. To protect farmer interests, Lincoln said she wouldn’t hesitate “to stand up in the U.S. Senate and scream and holler and throw a hissy fit.”

Americans, said Lincoln, have become complacent to the crucial role food plays in the nation’s security. “(They) take for granted that when they go to the grocery store, shelves are full. They take for granted the fact that…farmers don’t apply chemicals four days before harvest. In other countries, there are no such limits.”

Most Americans don’t understand “we now import a tremendous amount of agriculture products farmed with chemicals we banned 10 and 15 years ago. We must re-engage the American people in this discussion. This matters to them.”

Lincoln then hit on a recurring theme at the meeting: if Americans fret over rising, imported fuel prices, just wait until the United States becomes a net importer of food.

“We’re putting the very people out of business who keep the livelihood of this country going. We can’t wait for that to happen. We must engage (the nation) in that discussion now.”

Last month, Sen. Mark Pryor shared a Little Rock stage with USDA undersecretary Chuck Connor. In the aftermath of the USDA-sponsored “listening session” on the 2007 farm bill, Pryor is unimpressed.

“Let me tell you: they aren’t listening,” Pryor told the Stuttgart crowd. “I’ve got real concerns with what we’re hearing coming out of the Bush administration. I have a real concern — and it isn’t always at the White House or USDA — with the think tanks in D.C. where there’s a real hostility to agriculture. I don’t understand it.

“We must grow our own food and fiber in this country. It’s too important. If you like importing oil, you’ll love importing food. That’s what I’m telling my colleagues. We’re at a genuine crossroads in this country. I have a concern that some of the folks in Washington aren’t listening.”

The first week of November, the Senate had a joint meeting of the commerce and energy committees. Five CEOs of the largest oil companies in the world were brought in to testify.

“But they refused to be sworn in…They wouldn’t take the oath!” said Pryor. “That ought to be an indicator that something is amiss. I’m a free-market guy. I believe in the laws of supply and demand…If we have an open, free marketplace, that’s the best way to go.”

Pryor, to applause, said he has “a real concern” there’s been market manipulation by the oil companies, who posted some $30 billion in profits for the last quarter.

“They had two major hurricanes during that same period. It’s unbelievable. They’re blaming the high price of crude. But I’m telling you, their arguments don’t add up. When they were pressed on this (in the meeting), I found their answers very unsatisfactory. Frankly, I thought they were evasive and we were getting a bunch of double-talk.”

Berry called for “a serious look” at what consolidation has done to competitiveness. “You have to wonder — after the world’s oil industry has basically been consolidated to five companies — if that’s helping anyone take advantage of the situation. There are many other incidences where similar things have happened.

“It’s time we took a serious look at what giant corporations are doing to the abilities of farmers and small businesspeople to compete.”

Another hot topic for the day: the need to increase research and use of bio-fuels.

“I read an article…that said we just imported 250,000 gallons of Ecuadorian biofuel made from palm oil,” said Lincoln. “If we start importing biofuels as we have petroleum-based products, we ought to be kicked. There’s no excuse for that.

As for politicians calling for payment limits on crops grown primarily in the South, Lincoln had little patience. “The fact is we farm what we’re suited to grow. That’s what all farmers do…and what we’re suited to grow is rice and cotton…These are capital-intensive crops. That means more money will be spent up front to produce the crops…

“(Berry, Pryor and I must) educate our congressional colleagues that when growing rice or cotton, the capital investment is six to eight times what a farmer is (spending) in Iowa. We don’t fit into the mold of the Iowa farmer and we shouldn’t have to. We’re every bit as American as they are.”

Calling them a “political gimmick,” Berry said payment limits make little sense. “I don’t know how many times I’ve introduced an amendment to get rid of them but it doesn’t ever fly. We just have to accept the political reality and try to keep it at a reasonable level.”

Another political reality, said Pryor, is Democrats remain the minority party. “I don’t know how to say this delicately…but part of what you’re seeing here is the consequences of (the last) election…I’m afraid we’re doing lasting damage to our agriculture economy.”

Asked what measurements can be put in place to ensure a safety net for the 2006 crop year, Berry said the “obvious thing” would be to adopt a cost of production clause.

“It would be easy to do. But if we don’t get a change of attitude from the (Bush) administration and come out of the WTO with our hat in hand, it’ll be very difficult to get any of this done.

“Another easy thing would be to raise loan rates and target prices. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that’s where we’re hurting. There’s just not enough money in it anymore — $3 rice won’t get it.”

Pryor predicted a “knock-down, drag-out” in the coming 2007 farm bill debate. “I sense the (Bush) administration will lead the charge (against agriculture)…It isn’t necessarily the president. Maybe it’s the think tanks, his staff and the advisors he’s relying on. Sometimes things you know that will work, they’ll sabotage.”

The 2006 elections will have a “big bearing” on how the coming farm bill debate will move, said Pryor. “We need to be watching the races around the country to see if we can get a read on where ag policy will be going in 2007.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com