“It will make government support more stable and predictable from year to year,” he told the hundreds of farmers and business, civic, education, and government leaders attending the council's yearly down-home get-together on the campus of Delta State University in Cleveland.

Cochran, who has been a major force in farm legislation during his years in the Senate, and Delta Council President and farmer Kenneth Hood, recently joined President George W. Bush for the signing of the new bill.

“This legislation will continue the marketing loan program and commodity certificates, as well as the fixed payments that were part of the 1996 farm bill,” he noted. “Most importantly, it also establishes a newly-designed target price mechanism, allows for updated crop bases and payment yields, and offers farmers numerous options for updating their individual operations.

“It will also help protect our natural resources by providing an 80 percent increase in funding for conservation programs, increasing the enrollment cap for both the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, and authorizing the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program at $700 million, compared to only $50 million in the 1996 bill.”

In keeping with the traditional catfish lunch served at Delta Council Day, Cochran cited the successful inclusion of a provision to prohibit Basa fish imported from Vietnam being labeled and sold as farm-raised catfish. The industry has been up in arms over loss of sales and harm to their product's image by the inferior fish imports.

“Catfish farmers in the Mississippi Delta have spent over $50 million to establish a market for farm-raised catfish, and this will help to insure a safe fish product for American consumers.”

Emphasizing the importance of exports to agriculture, Cochran said the legislation reauthorizes programs to increase market access abroad.

“Twenty-five percent of U.S. farm income is generated by exports, so access to these markets is critical to the livelihood of our farmers.” Ag exports are expected to top $50 billion this year, up from $40.2 billion in 1990.

Last year, he said, Mississippi exported more than $1.8 billion worth of agricultural and manufactured goods. “If we increase our exports, we can also increase the number of jobs in the Delta.”

A “strong commitment to rural development” is evidenced in the $360 million authorized to eliminate the backlog of pending applications for grants and loans in water/wastewater assistance programs within the USDA, he said. “This will greatly assist those rural communities that are facing emergency drinking water shortages.”

Now that the new farm program's in place, Cochran said, there's more work to be done.

“First, it's time for the death tax to be permanently repealed, and second, this Congress must provide Trade Promotion Authority, or 'fast track,' to President Bush.”

Another “important challenge,” he said, is “sorting out requests for federal funds and making rational decisions about how to allocated the limited amount of resources.”

In a boost for Delta and U.S. agriculture, Cochran noted that the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee last year approved $16 million in funding for a National Biological Control Laboratory to be located at Stoneville, Miss.

“This facility is the first of its kind in the world, and will allow scientists to experiment with beneficial insects for both pest control and weed control. Not only will this research be useful for farmers, the new facility will also provide 50 new jobs for the area.”

And he said, earlier this year the Delta Health Initiative was established, involving a partnership between the Delta Council, the Delta Regional Authority, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Mississippi State University, and Delta State University.

“This is a concerted effort to increase access to health care services, conduct research on health problems specific to the Delta, and educate patients regarding their health. By bringing all these leaders together, we can make progress toward a healthier Delta.”

Education, too, will get additional emphasis, Cochran said, through the Delta Education Initiative, which began two years ago with $35 million in federal funding. The program is aimed at addressing an acute teacher shortage by awarding scholarships to Delta State University for education majors who meet grade point requirements and agree to teach in Delta area schools upon graduation.

The National Warmwater Aquaculture Center is now operating at full capacity, he said, with research directed toward helping farmers cope with catfish diseases.

“The new genetically modified catfish, which grows 10 percent to 20 percent faster, has become a success, and the center is now engaged in freshwater shrimp research.”

Noting that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the worst flood in U.S. history, the Mississippi River flood of 1927, Cochran said flood control projects in the Yazoo River Basin are “moving forward and showing results.”

The Upper Steele Bayou channel enlargement project will be completed this year, he said, providing protection for the city of Greenville, Miss. for the first time since the '27 flood. The Yazoo Backwater Area Project, designed to provide flood relief to some 1,500 square miles of the south Delta, received $4 million in funding last year, “and I will work to insure additional funding in this next fiscal year.”

The new farm bill, Cochran said, includes $275 million for the Small Watershed Dam Rehabilitation Program to improve aging facilities built over the past 50 years. And, he noted, the new Highway 82 Bridge across the Mississippi River will continue to receive federal funding until it is completed. “I've requested an additional $100 million this year for construction of the Mississippi and Arkansas approaches to the bridge and to remove the old bridge.”

He said the Mid-Continent Corridor, commonly known as I-69, is proceeding on schedule. Highway 304, which connects Hernando and Robinsonville, Miss., has been designated the official route for I-69 through that area. With environmental studies complete, Cochran said he has requested $27 million for construction and paving of a newly designed Highway 304. And an additional $2 million has been requested this year to complete improvements to the Greenwood, Miss. industrial park, which received $2 million in funds last year.

Paying tribute to the U.S. military for defending the principles of liberty and freedom on which his country was founded, Cochran said fiscal year 2002 defense appropriations bills provided over $10 million for military projects at Batesville, Miss. and Camp McCain near Grenada, Miss.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com