Any nation that takes itself seriously must pay attention to its food and fiber supply. And that's the reason we must have a farm bill — a safety net — for U.S. producers, says Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark.

Uncontrollable factors

“Producers face too many factors that are uncontrollable. The weather is one, the Federal Reserve is another, trade agreements another. The list goes on and on. We need a farm bill to assure an adequate food and fiber supply. Without one, we have no place at the international trade negotiations because (other nations) know we can be taken down at any time,” says Berry, who spoke March 3 in Memphis at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show.

The other reason the nation needs a farm bill is to protect farmers from the things their own government will do, says Berry.

Examples? “The Federal Reserve, the money supply and causing the value of the dollar to go up. I was in Asia a few weeks ago. It was mentioned to us that only five years ago, the U.S. dollar would buy one cotton shirt. Now, a single U.S. dollar will buy two cotton shirts,” says Berry.

Congressional workings

It was thought representatives might write a new farm bill in the House this year. Berry says that isn't going to happen because the Senate has indicated it wants no part of it.

The disaster program is also on hold while the new administration gets regulations approved. “That isn't a criticism of the new administration because it takes a while to get everything up and running. It'll just take some time.”

Unfortunately, farmers are again stuck with the short end of that stick, says Berry. One of the problems with the AMTA payment is some in Congress want to pass tax packages “before we start adding up the money. They know it won't add up, so they want to get that part done first. If we pass the emergency supplement, it'll just take that much away from their ability to pass the tax package. This is just politics as usual.”

Berry insists the food and fiber supply is a national security issue. “It's not a matter of preserving (farmers) as businessmen. It's not a matter of preserving a way of life. It's absolutely critical to the success of this nation or any other. If you go back through history and look at once-great nations that failed, I don't think you can find any that failed because their maximum marginal tax rate was 38 percent instead of 33 percent. They failed because they either had no strong national defense, they didn't educate their people, they had no adequate food and fiber supply or — and this is at the top of my list — they made bad policy decisions, bad priority decisions and took their nation in the wrong direction because of poor leaders.”

No one wants to profit from someone else's misfortune, but the earthquake in Seattle may give agriculture-friendly congressmen a vehicle to pass emergency supplemental payments, says Berry. “We didn't expect that a few days ago. If we do need a supplemental (AMTA) payment, we may be able to tack it on to the Seattle disaster payments that will come. But I don't want anyone to assume that's a done deal. It's not. I can't tell you with any degree of confidence if there will even be another payment.”

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee will continue to work on the farm bill. In recent hearings, Berry says, panelists suggested payment limitations be done away with. “I totally agree. If we're going to have a farm bill, for crying out loud let it work instead of going through all these gyrations. Everyone agrees it doesn't save any money and doesn't make life any easier. All it does is probably create a few hundred jobs for people who review those things nationwide.”

Berry suspects there's a consensus to raise the agriculture baseline in the budget. He says there's a reasonable expectation to get it up to about $21 billion per year.

“We pretty much have a consensus to raise loan rates as well. Nobody knows what the figure will be, but I think there will be some kind of direct payment.”

Fixing trade

One place there's a lot of work to do — “and Congress and the Clinton administration did a poor job on this the last couple of years” — is trade. The American farmer doesn't have access to markets worldwide that he needs to be successful, says Berry.

“We botched Cuba entirely. That isn't a big deal for cotton, but for the other commodities it's big. The United States isn't able to negotiate in a favorable way with other countries because the president doesn't have fast-track authority,” says Berry. “That's part of the excuse that the Clinton administration kept bringing up.”

That isn't the total reason, says Berry — part of it was they were simply asleep at the switch the last couple of years.

“But we need to give President Bush fast-track authority and encourage him to get a strong trade team in place and move forward with — as JFK said — ‘great vigor.’ The other thing we don't do is enforce trade laws we already have.

“I made this statement earlier and heard some disagree with me. I respect that, but I believe I'm right, so will repeat myself: we are fighting for the future of agriculture in this country today with our own government. If we don't take care of our business politically, we're going to wonder what in the world happened to this great country we live in.

“I absolutely believe it's that serious and encourage everyone to get as involved as possible,” says Berry.


e-mail: david_bennett@intertec.com