Like the true Southern gentleman he has become, Riceland Foods President and CEO Richard E. Bell tried to refrain from responding to the Environmental Working Group's inaccurate listing of his organization as the top recipient of federal farm program payments.
But two speeches by Michigan Congressman Nick Smith calling the Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland and other farmer-owned cooperatives “mega-farming operations” proved to be the last straw for Bell, a former undersecretary of agriculture in the Ford administration and Indiana native.
Smith referenced the payments made to Riceland in statements on the floor of the House of Representatives on Feb. 26 and March 6. In them, he claimed Riceland and the other co-ops were becoming wealthy through farm program payments.
“These are mega-farm operations, these are huge landowners,” said the congressman, noting that the operations were not 400- or 500-acre farms, but 40,000 to 80,000-acre farms.
Smith's comments were typical of the wildly inaccurate and misleading statements that have been made in both Houses of Congress and in the national media since the Environmental Working Group (EWG) obtained farm payment records from USDA through the Freedom of Information Act and put them on the World-wide Web.
Farm organizations were bracing themselves for another round of such statements after the EWG updated its Website with payment records from 2001 on March 27.
After Smith's second speech on March 6, Bell wrote the congressman, pointing out that Riceland Foods, Inc., which markets rice, soybeans and wheat grown by its 9,000 grower-members, has no farming operations.
He noted that Riceland owns 243 acres of farmland adjacent to its existing processing facilities in Stuttgart that eventually will be used for new processing and storage facilities, but it receives no government farm payments on the land that is rented to a grower-member.
One reason for the confusion in the farm bill debate regarding payment limits, he said, is that people do not understand the marketing pools used by cooperatives in the South, particularly those operated by rice and cotton cooperatives.
“Under the marketing pool concept, members deliver their crops to the cooperative where a professional staff markets them. Earnings and expenses are shared among pool participants on a per-unit basis of crops delivered,” Bell said.
Bell noted that Riceland and other cooperatives receive marketing loan benefits from the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) on behalf of the individual members participating in the marketing pools.
“These funds are distributed to individual members according to their deliveries to the cooperative,” Bell said. “The cooperative tracks marketing loan assistance payments due each individual member by using the payment limits information provided by the USDA for individual members.”
Bell said marketing cooperatives handling CCC benefits for members is not new. “The process has been in existence for probably more than 50 years,” he said.
In response to media queries, a spokesman made no bones about the fact that the EWG had timed its update of the 2001 payment information to have maximum impact on members of the House-Senate farm bill conference committee.
“Certainly, we think it can have a large effect,” said Susanne Fleek, director of government relations for the EWG, referring to the deliberations conferees will have on the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment when Congress returns from its recess April 9.
In other developments, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has written a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee advising them that he will re-introduce the payment limit amendment that he helped write if it is dropped from the farm bill conference committee report.
Dorgan advised Sens. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman, and Richard Lugar, the ranking minority member, that their first priority should be to “get a good farm bill in time for this year's crops,” but that they should also make every effort to insure that they maintain meaningful payment limits in the new farm bill.
“A farm program needs public support in order to exist,” said Dorgan, “And lately this critical support has been declining due in part to the impression that most of the money is going to the largest corporate farms.”
Organizations such as the National Cotton Council have been trying to counteract such statements, frequently pointing out that Dorgan's comments and the amendment specifically are based on “incomplete and highly misleading” reports by the Environmental Working Group.