Farmers packed into a hot and humid shop at Willie German Equipment Co. in Brownsville, Tenn., urged Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee to not let the cotton industry absorb more than its share of cuts as Congress looks for ways to cut $3 billion from the Department of Agriculture budget.

Frist was in the middle of a two-week listening tour through Tennessee communities, prior to the Senate reconvening after Labor Day.

“I'm listening to people on the front line, people who wake up every morning and go out to their fields and work hard all day long for the benefit of America,” Frist said. “As an elected leader of the Senate, I pledge to go back and share what I've learned with my colleagues. Tennessee is a very important cotton-producing state.”

According the National Cotton Council, the annual farm-gate value of Tennessee's cotton production alone is about $220 million. When the processing, distribution and utilization chain is included, the crop supports almost 15,000 good-paying jobs and generates more than $3 billion in annual business revenue.

However, it is a way of making a living that many west Tennessee cotton producers feel is in peril. John Lindamood, a cotton producer from Tiptonville, Tenn., told Frist during a question and answer session that the current farm program “is a fiscally sound, effective and responsible program. Our counter-cyclical payments rise when commodity prices fall. We have access to a non-recourse commodity loan. And yet as prices go up, governmental outlays go down.

“It's been very effective, unlike the previous farm bill that kept us guessing how much payments were, whether we were going to get it this year or next year and whether or not there were going to be supplemental disaster payments due to low commodity prices.”

The current farm bill “provides a solid, secure price floor on which we can plan,” Lindamood said. “It allows us to invest in the infrastructure of agriculture in our local communities, allows us to secure financing, invest in land, labor and capital. It allows us to plan for the future.”

Lindamood asked Frist to take three things back to Washington. “One, we realize we in agriculture are going to receive cuts just like every other program that's before the Senate. We ask that those cuts be made uniformly across the board, and don't allow one or two commodities such as cotton or rice to bear the bulk of that burden.

“Second, we ask your continued support in maintaining the current farm program and its current structure as we go forward. It's been a tremendously successful program. It's scheduled to continue through 2007, and we'd like to see it continue with that same structure through 2007.

“Finally, I'd like to ask you to continue to leave the doors to your office open and make yourself available. These are tough, complicated issues that defy summation in a one or two minute statement. We have interest groups such as Farm Bureau and the Council that are available to help your staff evaluate the consequences of farm policy decisions.”

Frist didn't specifically address any budget item in answering most questions. “My responsibility to you and your children is to make sure that our economy continues to grow. This means keeping the tax burden on you low enough so that you can continue to purchase tractors for your farm or school supplies for your children.

“While program policies are important, the restraint on spending as the economy grows is important too. We have to slow the growth in some really tough areas. We need dialogue going on all the time. That's why I'm here and that's why I'm spending two weeks talking across the state.”

Frist said he would be very sensitive to proposed changes in the farm bill. “We will be very careful to make sure that nothing is done that causes a dislocation.”

Alamo, Tenn., cotton producer Stoney Hargett said farmers know they have to make some sacrifices, “but this farm bill could determine if our children can continue to farm.

“When we start talking about payment limitations, you start being unfair to cotton farmers. Farmers up in the Midwest don't have the cost of growing a crop that we have. Anyone who wants to put the same payment limitation on us that they put on the Midwest farmer doesn't understand what's going on. Where we need to stand firm is to not start talking about payment limitations and to continue the current farm bill through 2007.”

Hargett's father, cotton producer Jimmy Hargett, said he told Frist that if the farm bill is taken away from cotton producers, “see what happens to the rural economy. We cannot raise a crop without a good farm policy.

“He told me that he appreciated the comments, and he understood that.”

Frist also spoke about what Congress was doing to relieve the burden on cotton producers. “The No. 1 thing that has come forth in all my listening meetings is the price of gasoline. It's skyrocketing. It's influencing people's travel, their jobs and their productivity.

“The government is starting to act. We've signed a federal policy on energy that increases production and addresses consumption and renewable sources, including biodiesel and ethanol.

“Any politician who thinks he has the answer for lowering gas and diesel prices is not telling the truth,” Frist added. “Right now, we are dangerously dependent on foreign sources of oil. That's why ANWAR (Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) is important and why offshore drilling is important. Sixty-percent of the oil today comes from regions of the world like the Middle East that are in chaos.”

“A few weeks ago, we passed a highway bill that will affect your life in a direct way. In Tennessee, through the federal government, we are investing hundreds of millions of new dollars to improve our highways — to transport your crops and open up our rural areas to jobs and economic development.”

Frist said that one of the first legislative moves he'll make in the Senate is to try and “kill the death tax, not just for now, but forever. I need 60 votes to win and I'm hopeful we can kill it. If not, we'll go back and continue to work hard.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com