In ranking our nation's priorities, food and fiber production should be at the same level as national defense, said Bob Odom.
“If the United States is going to continue to be the backbone of world agricultural production, but farmers can't survive on what they get from the marketplace, then the government should be willing to help keep them in business as a part of the nation's food security,” the Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry said at the annual convention of the Southern Crop Production Association at New Orleans.
Odom, now serving his sixth term as commissioner, said the nation needs to commit the resources necessary to keep its agriculture strong. “A farm bill has got to give our farmers enough dollars to be able to cash flow. Had it not been for government payments the last few years, how many farmers would be in business this year?
“We're going through some really trying times. We've got to be sure we provide farmers with a safety net and stability in order to continue this country's abundance of food and fiber. If we move our agricultural production offshore, we may find ourselves paying dearly to feed and clothe our families.”
As an indication of how bad things are in the current ag economy, Odom noted that the state of Louisiana has had to take over operation of a grain elevator and a rice mill that were in danger of going under.
“Our concern is whether we can keep viable these industries that we need as a part of the agricultural support system,” he said. “If we continue to lose industries that serve agriculture, it will hurt the infrastructure we need to keep our agriculture strong.
“If this current situation continues, we can't compete with other countries and their farm subsidies. Some of them can subsidize their farmers up to $80 billion, compared to only $19.1 billion in the United States. If they're going to stay in business, our farmers have got to be able to have enough cash to meet their obligations and provide for their families.”
The new farm bill, Odom said, should provide counter-cyclical payments that are set at a level that will allow farmers to stay in operation. “And we need a cost of production crop insurance program at the 90 percent level. Our government should be spending $30 billion a year on the farm bill to support major commodities and other crops. While we need to support conservation, as is being recommended by some in Congress and the administration, we don't need to do it at the expense of agricultural production.”
Odom noted that Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman has said she wants to wait on passing a farm bill until everyone is sure it fits farmers needs. But, he said, “If we wait too much longer, and we have more years like this year, we could very easily lose over 60 percent of the farmers in Louisiana. And a lot of others around the country could go out of business if we don't get a bill that's adequate.
“It's as important to feed our citizens as it is to protect them with bullets and bombs,” Odom said.