Up for a vote in the next round of national elections, veteran Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln began her campaign in mid-March. Currently without a Republican opponent, the Democrat told Delta Farm Press in a recent interview that she expects that to change. She also touched on her White House meeting with President Obama, what she told Obama about agriculture, trade with Cuba and Wall Street culture. Among her comments:

On Sen. Lincoln’s campaign…

“We kicked off the campaign two weeks ago. Since I’m one of the more moderate Democrats, I tend to be a target for the Republicans. But that’s okay, we’ll be ready.

“We don’t have an opponent yet, but I’m sure there will be one because there’s certainly been an effort by the national Republican Party to solicit someone to run against me. That’s okay — it doesn’t affect my bipartisanship … or the campaign.

On her recent meeting with President Obama…

“I wanted to bring up agricultural issues with President Obama to make sure he’s aware how critical (agriculture) is in many of our states, particularly the Mid-South. I wanted to make sure he was aware of the differences between crops and operations across the country.

“I also wanted to make sure he understood that hardworking farm families that produce the incredible food and fiber we need in the country — and globally — are very sensitive to hunger issues. (Recent) comments from (USDA) Secretary Vilsack aren’t productive — (things) like making choices between helping farmers and feeding hungry children.

“Those shouldn’t be the choices we make. Anyone that looks at the farm bill we just completed will recognize that farmers gave up a tremendous amount. … On top of that, there was probably the largest increase in food and nutrition programs in the history of our country.

“I wanted to begin a dialogue with President Obama and make sure there’s an open ear at (the White House). That’s critical.”

How did the president respond?

“He wasn’t really familiar with (Vilsack’s) comments. So, it was good I brought it up.

“He said, ‘I didn’t say that.’ I said, ‘No, sir. You didn’t, but the secretary of agriculture did. It’s important for you to know that agriculture is something we can’t do without. It’s also one of the places where we have a trade surplus in this country…’

“We’re going to keep up the dialogue and will follow up on several accounts.”

In order to gain support for a massive $410 billion stimulus bill, in early March the Obama administration backed calls by Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who is Cuban-born, and two Democratic senators, Florida’s Bill Nelson and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, to scuttle parts of the bill calling for ease in agricultural trading with Cuba. While the bill stopped short of lifting the trade embargo with Cuba, it said the U.S. Treasury Department would not enforce rules requiring cash-in-advance payment for agricultural shipments to the island nation. How does Lincoln view the situation?

“Exporters will still be required to receive payments in advance of shipments and won’t be allowed to export to Cuba except through a third-party banking system.

“Well, that’s been the biggest holdup for us. It’s ridiculous. I was extremely disappointed to see that play out. Apparently they needed the votes (of the pro-embargo senators) and they were holding out for it. But it’s devastating at this time.

“President Obama has been clear that he wants to open up new markets and wants to ensure playing in a competitive (arena) globally is critically important for keeping and creating jobs in this country. (Trade with Cuba) seems like such a fit for that.

“On top of that, the Obama administration has talked about engagement. Now is the time for that engagement. There’s someone new at the helm — Raul Castro has indicated he’ll be different than his brother. I’m sure he’ll have some of the same qualities we aren’t fond of. Nonetheless, there’s an opportunity to mold and craft — at least move in the right direction — his leadership, particularly with agricultural interests.

“I was very amazed they actually turned around what had been in the omnibus bill, where cash advance sales were allowed.

“I’m not sure I completely understand what they want. Completely remain isolated from Cuba forever and not try to engage and move Cuba in a certain direction? Clearly, there is a policy of disengagement and obviously maintaining the embargoes and inability to do sales for agricultural products.

“We’ll stay on this one. At some point, an ear in the Obama administration will hear the reasonableness of … opening up trade with Cuba for food and medicine.”

On the Wall Street bail-out…

“We’ve got to keep an eye on the target: the economy. … We must have an understanding that it’s a shared sacrifice. When we see things like the bonuses handed out at AIG and other places … I represent a lot of entrepreneurs, small businesses ... and Fortune 500 businesses. They understand that when times are tough, you don’t give out bonuses.

“That hasn’t been the culture on Wall Street. They come up with mathematical equations they think can be parlayed into a financial instrument. In practicality, you must have something to back that instrument up, an asset to back it up.

“Farm families live this out every day. How much seed can we buy? How much fertilizer can we buy? They have to meet that on an annual basis — no one is out there leveraging for them to be able to spread risk. The tools available to them like crop insurance don’t come close to covering the investment farm families must make.

“I guarantee you, farm families know full well there are consequences for every decision they make. …Folks on Wall Street lost track of the fact that there are consequences for the decisions you make. We’re all paying the price for it, in many ways.

“We’ve got to get this mess figured out and get ourselves back on track. That means demanding more responsibility, more transparency, and more accountability from Wall Street.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com