Before Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas returned to Washington for a final attempt to forge a new farm bill in Congress, she spoke of the body's biggest challenges — doing a lot of work in a short amount of time and dealing with a divergence of opinion on farm programs.

Speaking at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference, in Tunica, on Jan. 21, the Democrat said any consensus that has been forged so far, “did not happen without a fight, and we haven't finished that fight.

“We have to make sure that we come up with a bill that will be balanced and represent all of the interests of all farmers.

“Unfortunately, there have been movements to put punitive provisions in this farm bill. A lot of that comes out of ignorance from members who either don't come from farm states or don't want to take the time to understand very complicated programs. Another reason is that unfortunately, agriculture is not a glamorous issue.”

Lincoln, who is the daughter of an Arkansas rice producer, has taken up the scrap for southern growers, stressing that growing rice in a controlled environment and cotton's significant capital investment represent much different production systems than those for corn or soybeans in the Midwest. “And trade restrictions for cotton and rice are much more restrictive than those for other commodities that enjoy a traditional farm program safety net.”

Lincoln pointed out that corn producers receive an additional benefit from programs that support ethanol. “The tax credit for ethanol production per acre is two, almost three times what you get as a safety net for rice. And that's just a tax incentive.”

The upcoming farm bill “is a critical juncture for us,” Lincoln said, “and we have a timing issue. Without a farm bill, how are you going to sign papers with USDA in April if you don't know whether or not you have financing? What about the early LDP payment? Is it going to be under the new farm bill or the old farm bill?”

The next few weeks are important, Lincoln noted. “Obviously by the middle of March, the extension of the current farm bill expires. By the end of March, we have to have a new budget. The president sends us his budget the first week in February. If we don't have a farm bill before we get into the president's budget, we'll have to operate under a totally new baseline. We would be working with even less money to make sure those programs are there for you.

“It may be that you don't need them, that prices are great and yields are wonderful. But a safety net needs to be there when everything else doesn't work. That's what we have to remind everyone.

“We also have to make sure that people understand what we are up against in the global marketplace, whether it's WTO cases or countries that are forbidding our commodities from entering their country. When we ask our farmers to do more for less, we unilaterally disarm them from being competitive in the global marketplace.

“No one else's growers are being asked to give as much as you (cotton and rice producers). That's what makes me want to go back and fight harder every time I go to the table. We shouldn't be asked to give more than anybody else, just to meet what everybody wants to call reform. And they want reform without even understanding the consequences of what they want to do. I don't think that's acceptable.

“Most importantly, we need to remind people in this country what producers do, and the investment that this farm bill makes in this country. And only one quarter of one percent of this country's budget goes to insure that we have a safe, abundant and affordable food supply. The next time somebody starts badmouthing farmers we need to remind them of that.”