The prosperity of many small, rural communities rises and falls with agriculture, and that sector of the economy had a $7.3 billion impact in Louisiana last year, according to an LSU AgCenter economist.

Mike Salassi, speaking at the 2012 Farm Forum held by Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany on Feb. 23, said cotton, corn, soybeans, rice and sugarcane generated a total of $2.4 billion in direct income.

Farmers in turn spend their profits at local businesses that also make purchases with the money and, conservatively, each dollar generated from agriculture is turned over at least three times.

Agriculture support programs go beyond helping farmers. “The importance of it is not just the support of growers but keeping small communities viable.”

Farmers’ input costs are higher than ever, but most commodity prices are also high. Salassi said one question needs to be evaluated before a new farm bill is enacted: “How is it going to work when things are bad?”

He said the effects of a new farm bill on farm lending should also be scrutinized.

Johnny Broussard, Capitol Hill liaison for the USA Rice Federation, said a new farm bill should be tailored for different crops. He said a crop insurance program that would actually benefit rice farmers is being proposed, with a provision to cover losses for lodged rice.

Charles Cannatella, a grain farmer from Melville, said farmers are willing to accept cuts to their programs as long as they are fair. But he said target crop prices have to be increased because of higher expenses.

Boustany said Louisiana is in the top 10 export states, and its Number One export is agricultural products. Boustany wants to expand Louisiana exports. “I’m firmly committed to getting Cuba open for our rice industry.”

The congressman said he has written a bill to require dedicated dredging funds to be spent on keeping rivers and ports free of silt that limits how much cargo can be hauled by ships. Each one-foot loss of draft on a ship means a $1 million loss per ship per day.

Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said big cuts are being proposed for agriculture because of the ongoing budget crisis. “The agriculture programs are not the root cause.”

Goodlatte said 80 percent of the farm bill is for food stamps, but no cuts are proposed for that program. Medicare and Medicaid need to be reformed. “Everything has to be on the table in this process.”

Meanwhile, he said, federal regulators are interfering with farm operations. “We’ve got a government that is very hostile to your ability to make a living.”

Goodlatte said unfair trade practices limit trade with Cuba. Because of a policy enacted during the last Bush administration, the Cuban government has to pay for a rice shipment before the product is even inspected.

He said it’s possible that a new farm bill could be passed before this fall’s election, and that would be preferable to extending the existing one.

Goodlatte said federal immigrant worker laws should be changed to require payment to foreign workers that matches the local prevailing wage and not setting an hourly wage for the entire United States.